Historical Context of Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicides at Amijima

The Love Suicides at Amijima was first performed in 1720 as part of the puppet theatre (Bunkaru). Bunkaru gained popularity in the Edo period (1603-1868) in Osaka and was characterized by the usage of “…one-half life size and each is operated by three performers: a principal operator and two assistants…the puppeteers co-operate to maneuver the limbs, eyelids, eyeballs, eyebrows and mouths of the puppets, thereby producing life-like actions and facial expressions. The puppeteers are in full view of the audience, but are dressed in black to symbolize that they are to be taken as “invisible (“Bunkaru”). After the 18th century, Bunkaru began to decline as did the number of dramatic writers whose plays the puppet theatre was based on, only to reemerge once more in the 20th century. It is worth noting that on the Britannica page for Bunkaru, Chikamatsu is one of the key people listed for pupped theatre. (Britannica, ”Bunkaru”).

“Bunkaru Puppet Theatre”

The Edo period was also known as the Tokugawa Period was led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun and ended with Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and final shogun from the Tokugawa family. The rule of the Tokugawa family lasted for nearly 270 years. After that time, power was handed back to the emperors and the Meji Restoration began. The Edo period was the ”final period of traditional Japan, a time of internal peace, political stability, and economic growth” (“Tokugawa-period”). In order to support this internal peace, political stability, and economic growth, the shogunate prohibited mobility between social classes, put into place strategies that prevented foreign militaristic intervention and ideologies/influence (i.e expelling christian missionaries, limiting foreign interactions with a few exceptions [national isolation], etc.), etc. which led to economic prosperity.

In The Love suicides, Jihei is a merchant and Koharu is a sex worker/courtesan. They both exist during this prohibition of social mobility and so, the two cannot be together. Additionally, Jihei cannot afford to buy Koharu’s ransom. The two decide that suicide is the only way they can be together in the afterlife, since they cannot be together in the physical, earthly realm. Jihei talks about the Hokekyo Scripture that he had been writing in for the summer months which would allow him and Koharu, after their sucide, to “be mounted on the jewelled dais in paradise…become Buddahs and have attained the power of saving human souls…” (Act 3, p.35). They believed that by participating in and actively reading this writing Scripture that it would free them from any obligations (social, moral, etc.) they might have had before committing this act.

Fig. 2 The Rope Curtain, Utamaro. This painting depicts a courtesan that is thought to be bidding farewell to her patron. According to the National Gallery of Art, the scene ”conveys a dispassionate aura.”

In 1706, Tokugawa Ienobu came the 6th Shogun and Tokugawa letsugu became the 7th in 1713–both ruled what is known as the peaceful era of Shotoku. Finally, “Tokugawa Yoshimune, [the 8th shogunate of the Tokugawa family & came to power in 1716], (1684 – 1751), relaxed the rules regarding the importation of foreign [and western] books, the Dutch and their goods, including the scientific knowledge they brought with them, were the subject of both scholarly inquiry and popular interest.” (Hale). The lifting of this ban took place under the Kyoho Reforms in 1720. After this ban was lifted, literacy dramatically increased and people living in Edo could indulge in Rangaku (this is literally translated to Dutch learning). Learning the dutch language created this sort of bridge between Japan and the rest of Europe—their literature and technology. .

Works Cited

Hiroshige, Ando. Shin Yoshiwara Naka-no-cho yozakura [Cherry Blossoms at Night on Naka-no-cho in the New Yoshiwara. 1840-42. University of Colorado Boulder Art Museum, https://www.colorado.edu/cuartmuseum/exhibitions/past/2016-exhibitions/shikioriori-living-through-seasons-edo-japan

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Bunraku”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Dec. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/art/Bunraku. Accessed 3 May 2022.

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tokugawa period”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 Jul. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/Tokugawa-period . Accessed 3 May 2022.

“Bunkaru.” Japanese Puppet Theater, Japan Guide, 23 Apr. 2022, www.japan-guide.com/e/e2092.html.

“Bunkaru Puppet Theatre.” Youtube, uploaded by bunkachannel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hoK3RFvxwM

Hale, Keith. “V&A · Japan’s Encounter With Europe, 1573 – 1853.” Victoria and Albert Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, www.vam.ac.uk/articles/japans-encounter-with-europe-1573-1853. Accessed 3 May 2022.

Utamaro, Kitagawa. The Rope Curtain. 1640. National Gallery of Art, https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/edo-art-in-japan.pdf

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