‘There was no room for mercy in view of their crime.” None asked, none given. “They met their end … with … a touching acquiescence in their fate.”

The world we are entering is that of Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93). It was, first of all, a world of peace — the gated, barred, frozen peace imposed by Japan’s new Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) after 400 years of on-and-off, mostly on, mind-numbingly meaningless civil carnage in which one’s self, one’s “I,” was good for one thing only: sacrifice to one’s feudal lord.

Peace stirred commerce, commerce enriched merchants at the expense of the very samurai who so loftily despised them, and merchants, newly empowered by money if not respect, made a momentous discovery, what a later age would call “the pursuit of happiness.”

It was a revolution, an egotistical revolution. Never before (or arguably since) had individual Japanese been more “themselves” — not members of a caste, class, hierarchy or family, lost in a whole that subsumed and consumed them, but each in effect affirming with delight, with rapture, with defiance, “I am, first and above all, myself, my own free, indomitable self, and if they kill me for it, that at least is a death worth dying!”

“Five Women Who Loved Love” (“Koshoku gonin onna”) is the name Saikaku gives a collection of five tales, each consecrated to a love so fierce it makes the weak strong and the ordinary extraordinary. Love confers the dazzling gift of selfhood — only to snatch it brutally away from them. In Saikaku’s love stories, the public executioner is the overshadowing presence. Realism required it. Only one of the tales ends happily.

Would that space permitted discussion of all five of these pulsing narratives! It doesn’t; we make do with two. Note, incidentally, since the underlying theme is selfhood, the frequent recurrence of disguise. The first thing a self needs, it seems, is a mask.

“What the Seasons Brought” — a suggestive title. Of Osan, the heroine, suffice it to say that “her figure suggested the cherry buds, not yet blossoms, of Kiyomizu”; of Moemon, the anti-hero, that he was “honest and extremely frugal, so much so that he completely neglected his personal appearance … and slept with an abacus under his head, the better perhaps to reckon how great a fortune he could amass in a night spent dreaming of money-making.”

Osan was the wife of the Kyoto almanac maker for whom Moemon worked. Had they never met, or met under different circumstances, their lives would have unfolded unremarkably enough. The circumstances under which they did meet were as follows: Rin, a servant girl in the house, falls in love with Moemon, unprepossessing though he is. Moemon couldn’t care less. His sights are set higher — on money. When at last, with insulting haughtiness, he condescends to meet the girl, Osan decides to teach him a lesson; she’ll disguise herself as Rin and, when Moemon comes to her, raise an alarm. She falls asleep, however, and all the feverish intensity of Moemon’s passion fails to wake her. Next morning, mortified, she plunges headlong: “From now on I may as well abandon myself to this affair, risk my life, ruin my reputation and take Moemon as my companion on a journey to death.”

“Journey to death” is what it is. The lovers flee the capital. Death awaits them, biding its time. Tokugawa law is inexorable: “Illicit intercourse” was a capital crime — not because it’s immoral but because it’s ungovernable. Not even Tokugawa absolutism could tame it. All it could do was execute lovers, and that it did with gusto. The nearness of death fuels the fugitives’ passion; their passion fuels their selfhood. They stagger on, over mountains, through forests, deeper and deeper into a hostile countryside, Osan passing as Moemon’s sister, until Moemon hatches a plan to fake their deaths. That would throw pursuers off the track! Then they could really be themselves — dead and alive simultaneously, dead to the world, alive to each other!

And so it might have been, for the ruse was artfully contrived, had not Moemon, once so prudent but now wholly in the grip of anarchic, reckless feeling, suddenly “lost himself in a nostalgic desire to see the capital again.” He returns in disguise, is recognized and apprehended; it’s over. “There was no room for mercy in view of their crime.” At the execution ground, “they died like dewdrops falling from a blade of grass.”

Imagine now a girl, still a child, who conceives a passion for a man whose own passions are consumed and fueled by the love of boys: “Not once in his life had he amused himself with the fragile, long-haired sex.” Her name is Oman, his is Gengobei. Against all odds, “Gengobei, Mountain of Love” — such is the title — ends happily.

The successive deaths of several lovers (“even the dew outlasts men’s lives”) have driven Gengobei to priestly asceticism. Poor Oman! Never has she been more “herself” than when, disguised as a boy, she pursues him deep into the mountains, determined to brave all, risk all, even life itself —what is life anyway in a world even the unenlightened know is fleeting and illusory? — for love of an avowed homosexual unaware of her existence and indifferent to her sex?

Cold at first, Gengobei soon warms: “What difference does it make — the love of men or the love of women?” Love is love. Poverty pinches but not forever — Oman’s parents find the young people and bless them with their wealth. The executioner holds his peace — no class barriers having been breached, no law has been broken; the intercourse is not “illicit.” The lovers live happily ever after.

It’s the only story in the “Five Women” not closely modeled on a real-life episode.

The first and second installments of this series were published on Jan. 14 (bit.ly/2lufVpE) and Feb. 18 (bit.ly/2mpfKNZ). The final installment will be published on April 16. Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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