Friday, October 7, 2011

It’s bitter, and I daresay it won’t suit your taste, but how about a bite? - Chikamatsu's puppet plays

The puppet plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon are built on ethical and aesthetical values that are foreign and baffling to me.  I turn them this way and that, shake them, gnaw on them a bit, trying to figure out how they work.  They are a wonderful challenge.  I have come across readers who resent that an author includes history or names or anything else they do not understand.  I instead want to thank Chikamatsu, and Donald Keene, the translator and editor of Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu (Columbia UP, 1961).  How will I know what I do not know if no one tells me?

Two titles clarify the problem: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1703) and The Love Suicides at Amijima (1721).  Love suicides?  The heroines are prostitutes; the heroes are young men who have exhausted their wealth on their love affair.  The plays end with the bloody, detailed deaths of the protagonists; the scene preceding the deaths is an allegorical journey of Buddhist spiritual cleansing:

KOHARU:  If I can save living creatures at will when I mount a lotus calyx in Paradise and become a Buddha, I want to protect women of my profession, so that never again will there be love suicides.

NARRATOR: This unattainable prayer stems from worldly attachment, but it touchingly reveals her heart. (203)

The narrator is present in all of the plays, describing the action and setting and passage of time, inserting songs and poems and wisdom.  He is often the only actor, so he also does the voices of all of the puppets as well.  I have to imagine the painted scenes, the multi-jointed puppets and their movements, the puppeteers in their trench, and, hopelessly, the music.  I also have to imagine the weeping audience.

The Battles of Coxinga (1715) is a historical epic in which a Japanese general expels the Tartar invaders from China.  It features magic spirits, single warriors defeating armies, visions and dream sequences, utterly baffling honor suicides, endless weeping, and an allegory based on a game of go.  Also, a less allegorical use of go:

GO SANKEI:  This go board has been kneaded of taro root, and is harder than stone.  It’s bitter, and I daresay  it won’t suit your taste, but how about a bite?...

NARRATOR:  When Bairoku shows his head, Go Sankei smacks It squarely; when he shows his face, Go Sankei strikes it smartly.  He belabors Bairoku with repeated blows, till brains and skull are smashed to bits, and he perishes. (123)

I am not familiar enough with Japanese action movies to know how often villains are beaten to death with go boards.  Quite often, I assume.

Donald Keene, the translator of the edition of Chikamatsu I read, is unapologetically obscure, including every name, reference, and joke he can bring into English, explaining the inexplicable in abundant footnotes.  For some reason, though, he omits the opening scene (“virtually unrelated to the rest of the play”) of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki “consisting chiefly of an enumeration of the thirty-three temples of Kwannon in the Osaka area (with a pun on each name).”  Can you believe the outrageous liberties taken by translators?

I should go fill out the paperwork at Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Reading Challenge, shouldn’t I?


  1. I feel like I could write an essay on your first paragraph. I mean, a blog post. I mean, if I could write blog posts at all right now. Better to focus on the backlog of books and not arguments!

    But this sounds wonderful. Incredibly foreign but wonderful.

  2. Yeah, I kinda slipped one in there.

    These are wonderful, but I read them in a "what just happened?" spirit. Embracing the strangeness.

    To actually understand them, what other choice do I have? Understanding is a long term project.

  3. Like this post and sometimes look at a book by a writer & think I'll leave the understanding till later.A good one for that is The Secret History of The Lord Of Musashi by Juni'chiro Tanizaki

  4. Boy, is that the truth. Sometimes you just have to push through - that's the path to understanding, someday, maybe.

    I just looked up the Tanizaki novel & read a bit about it - I think I see what you mean.