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  • Sedge-Hat MadnessA Translation of Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s Onatsu Seijūrō Gojūnenki Uta Nenbutsu
  • Michael Brownstein (bio)

The story of the scandalous love affair between Onatsu お夏, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in the provincial capital of Himeji 姫路 in Harima province (modern Hyōgo prefecture), and Seijūrō 清十郎, one of her father’s clerks, dates back to the 1660s. By the early eighteenth century, kabuki plays about Onatsu and Seijūrō had become a regular part of the repertoire. In the twentieth century, the story found new life in six feature films produced between 1924 and 1954, a 1986 NHK television drama, and various stage productions. For more than sixty years an Onatsu-Seijūrō festival has been held annually in the city of Himeji on 9 and 10 August. The tale has thus remained very much a part of the popular imagination for over three centuries.

One early and influential retelling is Onatsu Seijūrō gojūnenki uta nenbutsu おなつ清 十郎五十年忌歌念仏 (Onatsu and Seijūrō: Prayers on the Fiftieth Anniversary; hereafter referred to as Uta nenbutsu), a sewamono 世話物, or “contemporary life” play, written by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門 (1653–1725) for the puppet theater (ningyō jōruri 人形浄瑠璃).1 As a playwright, Chikamatsu is noted for his extensive and creative reworking of source material, and a brief comparison of Uta nenbutsu with other versions of the Onatsu-Seijūrō story reveals his exceptional ability to meet the collective demands of jōruri chanters, puppeteers, and musicians for opportunities to showcase their performances while also producing a complex and tragic tale of unrestrained desire that dramatizes the socioeconomic tensions of the Genroku 元禄 era (1688–1703). [End Page 43]

Chikamatsu Monzaemon and Sewamono

Chikamatsu Monzaemon wrote his first sewamono for the jōruri theater, Sonezaki shinjū 曾根崎心中 (The Love Suicides at Sonezaki; 1703), as a favor to an old friend, the chanter Takemoto Gidayū 竹本義太夫 (1651–1714).2 Chikamatsu’s close relationship with Gidayū dated back to the early 1680s, when both worked for the chanter Uji Kaganojō 宇治加賀掾 (1635–1711). Soon after they met, Gidayū opened his own jōruri theater, the Takemotoza 竹本座, in Osaka in 1684, while Chikamatsu went on to work for about ten years in Kyoto on the staff of the Miyako Mandayū 都万太夫 kabuki theater, writing plays primarily for Sakata Tōjūrō 坂田藤十郎 (1647–1709), the leading actor of his day in the Kyoto-Osaka region. The Takemotoza’s financial difficulties, however, led to renewed collaboration between Chikamatsu and Gidayū in 1702.3

Based on a love suicide that had occurred only weeks before, Sonezaki shinjū is significant for establishing a formula that Chikamatsu would use in his other love-suicide plays.4 Following the success of the production, Gidayū decided to step down as the theater’s manager (zamoto 座本), and in 1705 Takeda Izumo 竹田出雲 I (d. 1747) was invited to take his place.5 Soon afterward, in early 1706, Chikamatsu moved from Kyoto to Osaka to write exclusively for the Takemoto theater. Over the next eighteen years, he would eventually create seventy-five jōruri; the great majority of them were jidaimono 時代物, or “historical plays” about famous warriors or nobles of the past, while twenty-three were sewamono, shorter plays typically set in the present and centered on the private, domestic problems of commoners, with an emphasis on realism.6

Whereas most of Chikamatsu’s sewamono capitalized on events that had occurred shortly before their writing, Uta nenbutsu belongs to a subgroup of plays based on much older stories dating back twenty or thirty years. Chikamatsu’s play, which was probably first performed at the Takemoto theater in the spring of 1707, met with an audience that was already familiar with the story through previous treatments. Thus the challenge was to introduce novelty to some of the basic elements—to craft a mix, [End Page 44] in other words, of what John G. Cawelti calls “invention” and “convention” through variations on established narrative patterns and devices.7 Moreover, Chikamatsu had to present this fresh approach while also meeting the demands of the jōruri theater for scenes that would highlight the talents of the chanters and puppeteers.

The literary version of the Onatsu-Seijūrō tale most familiar to Chikamatsu’s audiences...


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