Master of life’s joys and sorrows

by Rei Sasaguchi

Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), Japan’s foremost playwright, was born Sugimori Nobumori, the second son of a samurai of the feudal lord of Yoshie in Echizen (now Fukui Prefecture). Because he could not inherit his father’s samurai status, Nobumori resolved to be a playwright, and took the pen name by which we now know him.

Nobumori’s family moved to Kyoto when he was in his late teens, and there he studied Chinese and Japanese literature and mingled in aristocratic circles, soon getting to know Uji Kaganojo (1635-1711), a renowned master of joruri (dramatic narration). He also met Takemoto Gidayu (1651-1714), another prominent joruri master, for whom he wrote a jidaimono (historical play) in 1685 entitled “Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Rising to Greatness).” The two worked together, on and off, till Gidayu’s death.

From 1695-1705, Chikamatsu wrote only kabuki scripts for Sakata Tojuro (1647-1709), but as Tojuro’s influence waned the playwright returned to bunraku. “Sonezaki Shinju (Love Suicide at Sonezaki),” a 1703 drama again written for Gidayu, was such a success that Chikamatsu was appointed chief scriptwriter of the Takemoto-za Theater in Osaka run by Gidayu.

Bunraku theater was first developed in the late 17th century in Osaka, and the puppets in use when Chikamatsu wrote for the Takemoto-za were simple dolls’ heads surmounting wooden frames draped with a kimono. The adoption in 1734, 10 years after Chikamatsu’s death, of puppets manipulated by three handlers, enabled bunraku performance to attain greater subtlety.

Chikamatsu wrote 120 bunraku plays in all, 24 of which are sewamono (realistic plays) based on tragic incidents of the day. These portrayed ordinary people bound by the rigorous conditions of feudal Edo society. Though the world they depict has long since vanished, the plays retain extraordinary power due to their depiction of the human condition and the compassion with which Chikamatsu treats his heroes and heroines, caught between their sense of giri (obligation) and ninjo (human feelings).

Currently playing at Tokyo’s National Theater are two of Chikamatsu’s most striking bunraku works: “Meido no Hikyaku (The Couriers of Love to the Other World),” starting at 11 a.m., and “Horikawa Nami no Tsuzumi (The Sound of a Tsuzumi Drum Heard at Horikawa),” at 2.30 p.m.

An ever-popular sewamono, “The Couriers of Love” has been staged continually both as kabuki and bunraku, since it was first performed in 1711. It tells of hot-headed Chubei, the adopted son of an Osaka family in the business of transporting money, who is deeply in love with a beautiful courtesan named Umegawa. One evening, after squabbling with his friend Hachiemon over money he has borrowed from him, Chubei saunters over to Echigoya, the house of pleasure where Umegawa works, carrying 300 ryo to be delivered to a customer. Before entering, however, he overhears Hachiemon talking inside about Chubei’s dire financial situation. Losing control of himself, Chubei opens the sealed package of money to show that he has enough cash to buy Umegawa’s freedom. Coming to his senses later, Chubei confesses to Umegawa what he has done and the two decide to flee.

This National Theater version of “The Couriers of Love” is a perfect bunraku performance — no doubt because the puppet for Chubei is operated by Tamao Yoshida, 83, and that for Umegawa by Minosuke Yoshida, 68, both of whom are outstanding puppet players and designated living national treasures. The narration is also highly accomplished.

The three-act “The Sound of a Tsuzumi Drum,” opens with the longing of Otane for her samurai husband who has been absent for several months with his feudal lord in Edo. A good-looking thirtysomething with a weakness for sake, Otane one night makes a fatal mistake after drinking with a musician who has come to teach her son the tsuzumi (hand drum). When her husband, Hikokuro, finally returns home, he learns that his wife is pregnant and vows to kill her. After delivering the final blow to Otane, however, Hikokuro is full of remorse for the deed, his deep emotion serving to redeem her death.

Although “The Sound of a Tsuzumi Drum” is the most interesting of Chikamatsu’s three plays on adultery, it was not revived after its debut performance in 1707. It only resurfaced in 1965, when the first two acts were presented on NHK’s “Art Theater” with newly composed accompanying music; and in 1983, when it was staged in its entirety at the National Theater in Tokyo.

In 1985, Bunjaku Yoshida, 73, another puppet master and living national treasure, created a new bunraku version of “The Sound of a Tsuzumi Drum Heard at Horikawa,” and has since been the exclusive performer of Otane’s puppet.

Here, however, Bunjaku is clearly feeling the absence of gidayu master Sumitayu Takemoto, 77, who withdrew on Feb. 8 owing to sudden illness. The important work of narrating Hikokuro’s return and the death of Otane has therefore been assigned to Sumitayu’s 46-year-old disciple, Mojihisatayu, in what is undoubtedly the most formidable undertaking of his career thus far.