Chikamatsu’s Principles

Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s artistry stemmed from a deep respect for the power of words. With each play, he sought to paint a vivid portrait of reality amidst a sense of wonder. He believed that feeling was the link between the stage and its audience, best achieved through lively prose, a logical story line, and un-restrained imagination. In combining these principles, his puppet plays The Battles of Coxinga (1715) and Shunkan (1719) became a delicate balance of complex human emotion and surreal artistry, capable of captivating the audience’s imagination.

To Chikamatsu, a superb jōruri (puppet play) was one of great feeling. He explained: “It is essential… that even the words describing the scenery… not to mention the narrative passages and dialogue, be charged with feeling.” He thus created emotionally replete dialogue to inspire movement in his cast of puppets. His enthralling imagery breathed life into the inanimate players, and inspired empathy from the audience.

Images evoked by Chikamatsu’s carefully crafted words in both Coxinga and Shunkan activated a sense of awe and wonderment in the play’s admirers. Opening the third act of Coxinga, a chanter offers vibrant poetry to draw the audience in, “The castle looks more formidable than they had heard: far above the high stone walls, in the darkness of a spring night still bitterly cold, decorative dolphins arch their tails to the sky atop roof tiles glistening with frost. The waters of the moat, dark as indigo, uncoil like a long thick rope and flow toward the distant Yellow River (285).”

Through this mesmerizing narrative style, Chikamatsu also revealed characters’ inner thoughts, further encouraging sympathy from the audience. Shunkan shares the hidden loneliness of its characters, banished to Devil’s Island: “My grief is like that of a fish trapped in the puddle made by the tracks of a carriage. Nothing to compare with my sad fate. To wait, the agony of eternal waiting (303).”

Immersing the audience in these visceral descriptions of both scene and emotion brought realism to Chikamatsu’s work. This stirring realism was further achieved through weaving logical story-lines of inevitable demise. Instead of a physical villain, the conflict in these stories is an emotional war between personal feelings (ninjō) and obligation (giri.) As Chikamatsu explained, “The sadness in all my plays is based entirely on reason [giri]. Since the audience will be moved when the logic [rikugi] of the dramatization is convincing [giri ni tsumarite], the more restrained the words and the chanting are, the more moving the play will be (350).” Characters in both Coxinga and Shunkan are forced to intensely debate over which path to take in order to maintain both societal duty and personal desires. As the gravity of the situation in each scene builds, they are pushed closer and closer toward the last remaining logical solution: self-sacrifice in the name of justice.

As Coxinga’s Gojōgun Kanki considers a path of treason against the mighty Tartar King, he employs every bit of sense in his reasoning:  “If I… become your ally without batting an eye… I am sure to be slandered: the Tartars will say that I lost my nerve and forgot that I was a soldier because I was tied to a woman and influenced by her family. I will stab my dear wife and sever all ties to her family so that I can join your side cleanly and with honor (296).” Bound by duty to her husband and love for her family, his wife consents to this sacrifice for a greater cause of rebellion and justice. In the eyes of the audience, the inevitability of the character’s logical decisions makes each play all the more real and tragic.

Chikamatsu similarly employs this “battle of the giri” in Shunkan. When the three exiles are pardoned of their crimes, they are told Chidori must be left behind. As her pledged father, Shunkan is filled with familial duty and cannot abandon her. The messengers, however, reason that they cannot forego their own obligations to allow Chidori on the ship: “My official letter of passage allows for only two passengers. You have permission to add one more. I can take three, but who has permission for four? (309).” Determined to uphold their giri, neither exiles, nor rescuers can concede. Thinking it the only logical compromise, Shunkan voluntarily revokes his official pardon to forever remain on the island in Chidori’s stead. This technique of portraying sadness through logic and reason reveals poignant images of tragedy in both Coxinga and Shunkan.

With each play, Chikamatsu’s absorbing narrative and emotive dialogue inspire connection and sympathy from the audience, as if the puppets and their story were alive. Amidst this amazement, he employed a profound realism to achieve true feeling both on the stage and in the viewer’s hearts. His artistic principles, coupled with boundless imagination, formed Coxinga and Shunkan into his ideal, relatable, and realistic jōruri.


Works Cited

  • Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature an Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

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