The Japanese playwright, the greatest of the Edo period, often called the “Shakespeare of Japan”. He is credited with authoring more than one hundred plays, most of which were written for [ningyō jōruri] (see [Bunraku]) and about thirty plays for kabuki.
His birth name was Sugimori Nobumori, and he was born to a samurai family in the service of the daimyo (lord) of Echizen. His grandfather was a doctor. His early education included good grounding in the classics of [China] and [Japan]. When he was fifteen his family established him as a page in Kyoto in the service of Ichijō Ekan (1605-1672), an imperial prince who played a major role in the cultural life of the court. On the death of this patron, he served other aristocrats, but soon decided to dedicate himself to theatre.
In 1675, he worked under Uji Kaga-no-jō (1635-1711) a celebrated Kyoto chanter-narrator (tayū), but in this period he also wrote for kabuki. An important point was when he became associated with [Takemoto Gidayū] (1651-1714), a great chanter and theatre director who chose Yotsugi Soga (Heir of the Soga Clan, 1683), a new variation on the Soga brother’s revenge theme, which Uji Kaga-no-jō had first introduced, to inaugurate his theatre, the Takemoto-za, in the Osaka theatre district in 1684. The next year Chikamatsu offered a new jidaimono (historical play), Shusse Kagekiyo (Kagekiyo Victorious). Its resounding success confirmed his reputation and signaled the end of old style jōruri.
In addition to his collaboration with Takemoto Gidayū, Chikamatsu also composed many plays for one of the great kabuki stars, Sakata Tōjūrō (1647-1709), creator of the wagoto (soft) style which would become characteristic of Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka) area kabuki and associated with the Miyako Mandayū-za in Kyoto. This association with kabuki lasted until the early 1700s due to that actor who was exceptionally respectful of the text, but thereafter Chikamatsu devoted himself fully to ningyō-jōruri, for which he invented the revolutionary new genre of the period, sewamono (domestic tragedy).
In l703, inspired by a recent event, he wrote Sonezaki Shinjū (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki) at the Takemoto-za. This triumph allowed Takemoto Gidayū to surmount financial difficulties. This play began a series of twenty-four sewamono, which rather than actions of great heroes of the past featured the tragic loves of ordinary citizens. This was usually the story of a merchant who was in love with an unhappy geisha and, torn between her and his obligations to society and family, a struggle that ordinarily culminated in the suicide of the lovers.
As troupe playwright, Chikamatsu also wrote great historical plays for Takemoto Gidayū and his successor, Masadayū (1691-1744), including Kokusen’ya kassen (The Battles of Coxinga, 1715), which is based on historical persons, the 17th century merchant and pirate Zheng Zhilong and his half-Chinese/half-Japanese son, Zheng Chenggong (in Chikamatsu’s play the former is Tei Shiryū, whose son is known by his Japanese honorific title, “Kokusenya” [Coxinga]), who together restore a banished Ming heir and defend him against the Manchus. Set in a universe of supra-normal heroics, the work deployed the special scenic possibilities of the puppet genre, and was an unprecedented success. It played at the Takemoto-za for seventeen months, despite competition by kabuki troupes who presented the same theme in Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo.
In his final years Chikamatsu remained extremely productive: between 1717 and 1722 he authored twenty-one plays, including major texts such as Shinjū yoigōshin (The Love Suicide on the Night of Kōshin Vigil, or Love Suicides on the Eve of the Kōshin Festival or The Love Suicide of Hambei and Ochiyo) and Shinshū Kawanaka-jima kassan (The Battle of Kawanaka-jima in Shinshū Province). Then illness gradually reduced his output.
Several years after his death in 1724 Chikamatsu Monzaemon was already hailed as the “titular god of playwrights” and today he is unanimously acknowledged as, not only the great playwright of the Edo period, but also as one of the great writers of Japan.
- Chikamatsu, Monzaemon. Les tragédies bourgeoises [The Domestic Tragedies]. Trans. R. Sieffert. 4 vols. Paris: POF, 1991-1993.
- Chikamatsu, Monzaemon. The Battles of Coxinga. Trans. D. Keene. London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1951.
- Major Plays of Chikamatsu. Trans. D. Keene. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1961.
- Chikamatsu, Monzaemon. Chikamatsu’s Five Late Plays. Trans. A. Gerstle. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2001.