Four Major Plays of ChikamatsuFour Major Plays of Chikamatsu by Monzaemon Chikamatsu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


For most of us in the West, when we think of the idea of “star-crossed lovers” or of the love suicides of doomed lovers the first image that comes to our minds is that of the tragic lovers Romeo and Juliet of Shakespeare. When we then attempt to take in the similar traditions of other cultures, such as the immortal Japanese play, “The Love Suicides at Amijima” by the great 17th Century Japanese playwright Chickamatsu Monzaemon, our first reaction is to see it as “The Japanese Romeo and Juliet,” and we may be forgiven our presumption by realizing the universality of egocentrism such that Japanese readers may regard Romeo and Juliet as the Western Amijima, Arabic or Iranian readers as the Western “Layla and Majnun.” In truth all of these works are the product of the universal Collective Unconscious manifesting itself in its innumerable variations on the themes of fundamental archetypes and patterns in World Literature, here the universal Archetype of The Star-Crossed Lovers, and which Archetypes are shared by all of us as the common heritage of mankind.


C.G. Jung identified as “Archetypes” enduring dynamic symbolic complexes charged with energy in the human psyche which mediate and help transcend the inextricable contradictions and limitations of human existence, and which serve to enhance psychic wholeness, growth, and the powers of greater life itself. Archetypes recurrently irrupt from latent unconsciousness into living human consciousness in the form of dreams and as recurrent motifs expressed in literature, art, religion and myth serving as guides and healers towards grater life. Archetypes are generally manifested in the three major forms of characterological personas, situational motifs and oppositional symbolic patterns.

Examples of archetypal characterological personas charged with the immense hidden energies of the Collective Unconscious would include:

1. The Hero–who typically struggles against inimical and powerful forces beyond his control;
2. The Scapegoat–an animal or more likely a human whose ceremonial sacrafice or expulsion expiates some taint or sin afflicting the community;
3 The Outcast–a figure banished from a human community
4. The Devil–Evil incarnate, inimically opposed to human well-being;
5. The Earthmother–symbol of fruition, abundance and fertility;
6. The Star-Crossed Lovers–These lovers represent the element of Doom in erotic love relationships, implying that whatever forces determine their fate, the lovers are not and ultimately cannot be in essential control of them. These overpowering forces may include “fate” or “the stars,” the internal irresistable and ultimately lawless forces of libido, lust and love, the countervailing overweening powers of society,family, social repression, convention social duty, and perhaps even the power of Death itself.

Examples of Situational Archetypal Motifs would include:

1. The Quest–a search for something or a powerful talisman which will restore fertility to a wasted and blighted land;
2. The Task–to save the kingdom, win a fair lady or perform some superhuman deed;
3.The Journey–usually to find some vital information or truth;
4. Death & Rebirth

Sybolical Archetypal oppositional patterns might include:

1. Darkness & Light
2. Water & Desert
3. Heaven & Hell—Man has traditionally associated places not accessible to him as the dwelling places of the hidden primordial powers that govern his world, as exemplified by the Heaven and Hell.

Since Archetypes emerge from and express the universal Collective Unconscious of humanity as they deal with the uneradicable contradictions and limitations of the human condition, they occur in all cultures and at all times in human history, though shaped in specific expression by each cultural tradition and historical context in its own way.


The Archetype of the Star-Crossed Lovers appears in World Literature from earliest antiquity. A famous example at the center of Homer’s Iliad, is the fated love of Helen of Troy and Paris, forbidden by Helen’s marriage to Menalaus, which ends in Paris’ death and the destruction of his homeland Troy. Also, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses we encounter the figures of Pyramus and Thisbee, two Babylonian lovers frequently used in Shakespeare, who, like Romeo and Juliet kill themselves out of frustrated love.

Similar stories abound, as in the case of Hero and Leander at the Dardanelles, in which Leander perishes swimming the straits with the guidance of a lantern in the night lit by Hero, until bad winds and weather extinguish the lamp and he drowns. In Celtic mythology, the tale of Tristan and Isolde follows similar lines with Tristan, a faithful Knight of King Mark sent to bring Mark’s new bride from Ireland to Cornwall. Isolde however, falls in love not with King Mark but with Tristan and they drink of a magic love potion binding them together body and soul. The lovers cannot keep apart until King Mark to save the honor of himself and the kingdom must banish Tristan to France where Tristan dies of separation from Isolde, resulting in her own love suicide. This also serves as model for other stories of ill-fated lovers, such as the Arthurian legend of the love of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guenevire.

In non-Western traditions similar expressions of the Star-Crossed Lovers appear, such as Nizami’s famous Persian tale of “Layla and Majnun,” popularized in Arabic, Persian, Indian and Islamic Literature. There Layla and Majnun are inextricably in love, but Layla’s father refuses to allow them to marry, citing Majnun’s poverty and his reputed mental illness arising from his excessive love for Layla. Layla is forced to marry another wealthy suitor and Majnun is reduced to wandering in the wilderness, Heathcliff-like, inscribing poems to Layla on rocks and the walls of her home. Finally he dies from grief causing her to do so at the same time.

In Chinese Literature similar tales are abundant, such as the fate of Imperial Consort Yang Gui Fei celebrated in Bai Juyi’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” in which the Imperial lovers’ excesses threaten the downfall of the Tang Dynasty such that the Emperor Xuanzong is forced by his army to have her executed to save the Empire. The fabled doomed love of Liangshan Bo and Zhu Yingtai, Ovid-like, ends in their being transformed into butterflies to be united in spirit. Another celebrated case is the ill-fated love of Jia Baoyu and his sickly cousin Lin Daiyu in Cao Xueqin’s immortal classic “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” another case in which love’s consummation in marriage is blocked by Lin’s poverty and ill health, causing her to waste away and die, blighting both lives.

Other cases of the appearance of the Star-Crossed Lovers Archetype are those of Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther,” Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”


“The Love Suicides at Amijima” tells the story of two ill-fated lovers, Jihei, a married unsuccessful merchant of commercial Osaka, and Koharu, a beautiful courtesan for whom he has contracted a fatally intense love attraction, and from whom his love is reciprocated, but a love which can never be fulfilled due to his marriage and family and her indentured status as a paid courtesan.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who begin their story in youthful innocence and exuberant hope, Jihei and Koharu begin Chikamatsu’s play in a state of hopelessness that is never relieved. As the play opens they have exchanged vows to commit mutual suicide together when an inevitable opportune moment arrives. Their fate is sealed from the outset, and the drama consists less in their attempting to change it for the better, as do Romeo and Juliet, but in how the attempts of all those around them who represent “rationality,” control,social duty and convention, foremost Jihei’s loyal wife Osan and their children, Jihei’s brother and extended family all attempt and ignominiously fail to divert the lovers from their doom.

The characters are portrayed in a thoroughly realistic manner as Jihei appears not the ideal tradesman of Osaka but rather one of the unsuccessful members of a profession that demanded a high level of diligence, reputation and devotion, exhibiting a weak, conflicted and vascillating nature, though ultimately devoted to his passionate but hopeless love to Koharu. Chikamatsu explains that even the love of a prostitute is deep beyond measure, a bottomless sea of affection that cannot be emptied or dried. The action is relieved by episodes of humor and insight into personalities and human foibles. Practically, Jihei is surrounded by “love” —-love between man and woman, husband and wife, father and children, younger brother and elder brother, but none of these conventionalized loves can rise to the reality of his true love for Koharu.

He tries to control his overpowering passionate love for Koharu—-in fact, a part of him desires nothing more than to live up to what society expects of him as a husband and father. Torn between the two opposing worlds of duty (giri) and passionate private desire (ninjo), Jihei is forced over and over to reject his home and family. Like any other human nature, Jihei’s nature is impulsive and changeable. He begs Gozaemon, Osans father who threatens him with divorce and bankruptcy over the affair, to let him stay with his wife Osan. In his quickness of tongue, his impulsiveness and his fear of being shamed in public, Jihei represents a typical representative of inconstant males so vividly portrayed by western female songstresses like Joni Mitchell: “Be careful now – when you court young men: They are like the stars On a summer morning, They sparkle up the night, And theyre gone again—-Daybreak—and gone again.” Under pressure from his wife and family, Jihei attempts to give up Koharu, but ultimately finds it impossible. In the end, Jihei’s love for Koharu makes a double suicide seem as the only course open to him.

Part of the pathos of the tragedy comes from our admiration for Jihei’s wife Osan, who appears as a plausibly ideal and admirable wife, forgiving Jihei and Kohatsu, seeking to protect her children and family, taking the strong initiative to ask Kohatsu to give up Jihei to protect his children and family. When Koharu is threatened with disaster Osan even makes great sacrafices to raise money for her, though a rival, acting with great strength, courage and honor. But Jihei’s love is fatally unaffected by his wife’s virtues, and he is impelled further and further towards his hopeless love for Koharu and its inevitable consequence of self-destruction.

In the end, Jihei and Koharu resign themselves to their fate and to each other, setting off in the night to commit suicide together, justified in their hopeless love and expectation that they will be together in future lives and reincarnations even if their love is impossible in this life and world. A main theme of The Love Suicide at Amijima is that marriage and living out social conventions and roles does not equal happiness and love. This can be seen during the play through Osan’s self-sacrifice and Jihei ultimately choosing a tragic death with Koharu instead of living with Osan.

It is not coincidental that “The Love Suicides at Amijima” found birth in the Japanese Bunraku “puppet theater,” though it also is performed by live actors in the Kabuki theater as well. McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message,” and the telling of Chikamatsu’s story via the strings of puppets emphasizes the hidden strings of forces beyond our control which may well take over our destinies. Von Kleist’s famous essay, “On the Puppet Theater” and its uncanny effects makes the same point in our Western tradition.


One of the teasing and maddening perplexities of Romeo and Juliet is the knife-edge balance of seeming chance on which their fates depend and ultimately turn. “If only” comes repeatedly to mind: If only Juliet had awoken from the potion ten minutes earlier; if only Romeo had known she was not dead but only drugged; If only Friar Laurence’s messenger had got to Romeo in time! Similar operations of seeming chance operate in the Love Suicides: If only Osan had discovered Jihei’s absence on the fatal night an hour earlier she might have intercepted him and prevented the suicide. Yet part of the mastery of both Shakespeare and Chikamatsu lies in how these seemingly chance events reveal the workings of inexorable hidden forces that ultimately cannot be either eliminated or controlled. If they do not work their will in one chance event they will through another until they have worked out the character’s fate.

The point is that there really are latent forces immensely greater than the individual wills or ego-consciousness of Romeo, Juliet, Jihei, Kohatsu and the reader or spectator which are poised to take over their lives, and potentially our lives. What are these forces? Eros, libido, sexuality, overwhelming sensuality and passion rooted in our DNA and the forces of life within and beyond individual consciousness and control is one such force that can become a law and destiny for any individual. To put it rather crudely, when men “think with their dicks” it is often biological “life force” which is doing the thinking for them, a force unfortunately indifferent to their individual destinies and wholly willing to ruthlessly make “puppets” of them, or even hurl them into disaster and death for its own greater ends. For both parties to a fatal passion, that passion, as the cliche would have it, is “bigger than both of us.”

Another such “superforce” is death, or Thanatos as Freud expressed in in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” or the fact that the Darwinian-driven life force is using each of us for its own ends, like God’s invisible hand working the puppet strings of our lives, rather than each of us using life for our own ends, and of which our own little lives and deaths are but part of a much greater “master plan.” The desire for death is also the deisre for peace and escape from the pain and travail of troubled life. Who is using whom? In the greater scheme of things Life will prove Master, and Death will prove Master over each of us, try as we may to overmaster their powers for our own egocentric aims. It is the Archetypes that reveal and catalyze these latent and inexorable contradictions in human life and brings them to light. However we struggle for our own ends we discover, and the Archetypes disclose, that we are in fact inevitably and inexorably serving ends beyond ourselves.


Our movies and media are strangely pervaded by the onmipresence of a fatal intertwining of sex and death: Twilight vampires enmeshed in the net of passion and blood-death, and zombies crazed for the blood of life. Sex and death have a number of connections other than having been taboo topics in polite company and controversial subjects in school curricula. As is the case with many taboos, both can lead to fetishes and eroticisms, and their mere mention holds shock value for young adults.

Few question that life’s greatest drives are to reproduce and to avoid death. Yet the great psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the French social theorist Michel Foucault argued that the two are fused, that the death instinct pervades sexual activity—–a connection easily seen by such a Frenchman as Foucault whose language frames orgasms as “petit mort,” or “little-deaths.” As in the “Play it Again Sam” song of Casablanca, love and sexuality have always been a case of “do or die,” from the upstream spawning quests of anadramous salmon to modern film.

It has been often observed that death is the price multicellular creatures must pay in order to reproduce. The biologist William Clark observed, “Obligatory death—as a result of senescence (natural aging)—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life first appeared. This form of programmed cell death seems to have arisen at about the same time cells began experimenting with sex in connection with reproduction.” Perhaps one legacy of this original immortality is the telomerase, the so-called immortality enzyme, found within the cells of testes and ovaries. Absent from normal cells that age and die, telomerase is what allows cancerous cells to reproduce without limits. Sexuality, followed by human individuation may have been the “original sin” against the primitive amoeboid immortality of undifferentiated binary fission as a means of reproduction, along with the later adoption of a murderous carnivore diet and evolutionary ethos.

Humanity is not immune from this law of death as the cost of sex. This toll for reproduction has particularly been borne by women. Unlike at the start of the twenty-first century, when women held a seven-year life-expectancy advantage over males in developed nations, historically, because of their high maternal death rates, women were the shorter-lived sex. The era of AIDS reinforces the notion that the sex act itself may be the cause of death. Perhaps in the evolutionary scheme sexuality, like the Pentagon in times of budgetary retrenchment, adopts a scheme of “up or out” as a corollary to “do or die” whereby sex and love, if not fulfilled in fruitful union and evolutionary potential, press inexorably towards necessary death as the default reset position. Perhaps Romeo and Juliet, Jihei and Kohatsu fulfill another Archetype, the Scapegoat, to tragically purge the gene pool for more viable options, yet in their deaths, ironically, inspire us towards the roots of greater life. Perhaps ironically also, it is in the moment when forces greater than ourselves take over and even end our lives, that we so often find the potential for essential alignment with those forces that lends transcendent meaning to our lives, often expressed through Archetypes and myth.

The composition of my own recent novel, Spiritus Mundi, is rooted in the exploration of Archetypes, most notably those of The Quest, in this case the Quest to save humanity from destruction in WWIII and the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. In it the protagonist Sartorius overcomes the urge to suicide and finds inspiration in love for the Anima figure of his beloved Eva, who accompanies him on his Quest. I invite you to look into Spiritus Mundi, Romeo & Juliet and the Love Suicides at Amijima to explore the world and power of Archetypes in World Literature.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: rsheppard99_2000@yahoo.com Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.