Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon in an attempt to better understand the urban society of the period which serves as a temporal background for the plays. The two aspects which will represent the focus of our attention are the conflict between society and the individual and suicide.
The names of the stories included in the Four major plays translated by Donald Keene are: The love suicides at Sonezaki, the Battles of Coxinga, the uprooted pine, the love suicides at Amijima. Two out of four have as a main theme suicide caused by love issues, therefore one might assume right from the very beginning that this might have been a relevant social phenomenon of those times. It must be mentioned that Chikamatsu enjoyed great popularity in Japan as well as abroad. His stories about love suicides caused quite a frenzy in Japan. It has been claimed that love suicides became a fashion, both on stage and in real life. Therefore the subjects discussed in the plays under discussion are romantic tragedies and historical dramas.
The historical period under analysis is represented by the second half of the 17t century. It is known that the major cities in Japan underwent an important development process, both at economical and cultural level. The fact that people had access to bigger financial resources had an important impact upon society. This was caused by the bigger availability to invest in entertainment and cultural events. The truth is that the cultural life of that period underwent quite a boom. With authors such as Chikamatsu the puppet theatre as well as the kabuki art shows were stimulated enough to become relevant manifestations of dramatic art (Keene, 1997, preface).
Let us discuss each of the four plays while analyzing the themes of interest, that is, suicide and the conflict between society and the individual. The love suicides at Sonezaki is considered a typical domestic tragedy. The plot includes a young man named Tokubei who is in love with Ohatsu. There is a direct connection between the conflict society- individual and the tragic destiny of the characters. The tension arises from the different social status that Tokubei and Ohatsu have. He is an orphan merchant and he is working as a clerk. He has the possibility to make a career for himself and develop his business, acquire a better social condition, become more important, etc. Ohatsu on the other hand is a courtesan. Both of them are in love and some might say that love ought to have no boundaries. However the reality of the Japanese social urban environment tells us a different story (Keene, 1997, 20-50).
Tokubei works in a shop the owner of which is his uncle. Since he is very good at doing his job the uncle decides to have him marry one of his daughters. We could state that he is trying to perform a good deed and give Tokubei the opportunity to change his life but since he is not willing to accept the proposal it means that his happiness is to be found somewhere else. The conflict which arises as far as Tokubei is concerned refers to the possibility of surpassing his condition (as a clerk), acquiring a better social status and following his heart (marry the courtesan he is in love with). He chooses the latter version .
While it may seem that individuals are the only ones responsible for their destiny, Chikamatsu's play shows us how complex the dynamics of human relations can be. Tokubei's uncle simply can not take "no" as an answer / and here we understand that in seeking to marry his daughter to Tokubei he is looking for his best interest). He gives an important sum of money to the young man's stepmother.
By accepting the money she is actually guaranteeing the marriage between the two. She does this without even consulting the young man even though she knows about his initial refusal. Under these circumstances it can be stated that older members of the same family tend to control the destinies of the younger parties according to their own values and interests. The stepmother's interfering with the decision of the young man seems to be a sign of his dramatic destiny since the tragic outcome will be partly caused by the money (Keene, 1997, 60-90).
Another of Tokubey's relationships will also prove to be extremely damaging. Being generous and caring he will lend the money to one of his friends. This friend will later claim that there is no such debt on his part. In addition he accuses Tokubei of trying to extort him and he beats him up. As if this were not enough he boosts about the eminent conviction of the young man and tell Ohatsu she will become his property.
In his being generous and trusting Tokubei did nothing wrong. His behaviour followed a solid code of ethics. Unfortunately this turned out to be fatal for him and from this point-of-view the individual appears to be weak enough to be crushed by social circumstances. The crush is symbolically depicted by the couple's suicide. The gesture marks the defeat and stands as clear evidence for how weak the individual is in front of society. Social status seems to be playing an overwhelming role in the Japanese society of those times (had Tokubei been richer he could have avoided the pressures made by his uncle).
The same negative impact of the social status upon the destinies of poor people is presented in the other domestic drama, the love suicides at Amijima. The plot is far more complex this time. The main love story involves a young prostitute called Koharu, who is fought over by two men, Jihei and Tahei. She is apparently more attached to Jihei. Not only is Jihei married, but he is also in a precarious financial situation. therefore he can not afford to pay the money that would free her from the condition of prostitute.
Since their story is impossible her being trapped in a contract which is supposed to last for another five years they decide to kill themselves together. Once again we have society strongly pressuring the individual. The girl is trapped in a slave like condition which she can not escape on her own. The man on the other hand can not afford to rescue her nor to divorce. The social condition of the girl will have tragic implications upon the fate of both of them (Monzaemon, Shively, 1991, 20-70).
The girl initially agrees to the double suicide but the changes her mind. As she does not have the courage to confront her lover he considers her act as a betrayal. He returns to his family but the harmony between him and his wife had already been broken. Analyzing the pressure that society makes upon the individual as well as the complicate dynamics of human relationships it is very interesting to notice the attitude that Jihei's wife has towards the entire situation. She eventually decides to leave him but she does not want to see the young prostitute kill herself as an act of honour caused by her. She is willing to sell her clothes in order to rescue Koharu. The act might be interpreted as being one of generosity but judging from the point-of-view of the Japanese values, it is more likely an attempt to save her own honour. The young prostitute on the other hand, despite being the source of all the problems seems to be completely powerless as to change her own destiny (Monzaemon, Shively, 1991, 80-110).
Ultimately the lovers will perform suicide. Jihei can not abandon Koharu since he is really in love with her ad he is unable to save her (despite his and is wife's attempt). It is also interesting to notice how in both dramas discussed so far it is the man who kills the woman and then commits suicide. It can very well be stated that in this case, social pressures clash both partners. Jihei on the one hand is trapped in an impossible situation. Koharu on the other one might have very well abandoned the man hoping that someone else would have saved her. But strong matters of honour are at stake and she will choose death over losing hers or allowing Jihei to loose his. Other social agents such as his wife, his brother and his opponent also play important roles which determine the tragic denouement of the story (Keene, 1991).
The battles of Coxinga tells about the adventures of Koxinga. It must be mentioned that while Koxinga was a real historic figure, the play does not depict real facts. Unlike the other two plays this one has a happy ending. There is more than one strong conflict between various characters in the play and there is a lot of blood shed as well. Again the social pressures make people do insane things such as killing their own child or killing a pregnant woman because of her status of…