Women and Jōruri Puppet Plays in 18th-Century Japan


A review of Prostitutes, Stepmothers, and Provincial Daughters: Women and Jōruri Puppet Plays in 18th Century Japan, by Shiho Takai.

In this welcome dissertation, Shiho Takai examines representations of women in the new jōruri puppet theater (tōryū jōruri 当流浄瑠璃) as it flourished and evolved throughout the eighteenth century. Takai draws on a wide variety of sources—including dramatic texts, theater criticism and ephemera, and visual materials—to argue that jōruri playwrights, especially through their depictions of women, sought to create “an alternative world where the repressed voice speaks, gender and class expectations are revisited, and the societal status quo is called into question” (p. 6). The first of its kind in English, this study doubles as a performance history of eighteenth-century jōruri and a consideration of gender roles in one corner of early-modern popular culture.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are devoted to particular playwrights and questions of form and gender raised by their plays, while Chapter 1 (“Women and Jōruri”) lays the historical and contextual groundwork. This chapter covers a range of topics relevant to the history jōruri, including commercial and economic aspects of the theater, reception and censorship, authorship, texts and staging, audience, and the differences between male and female puppets. Takai stresses that although jōruri (and kabuki) excluded female performers and was developed as a “male” art, both the centrality of female characters in plays and the presence of female audiences at performances indicate the importance of women in the wider theater culture.

Chapter 2 (“Making Prostitutes into Heroines: Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724) and Sewamono”) reads several love-suicide (shinjū) plays of Chikamatsu, situating them within the development of sewamono 世話物, domestic plays that sought to depict with realism the emotional aspects of relationships. Of particular interest here is Chikamatsu’s portrayal of low-ranking prostitutes. Instead of dismissing these figures as immoral and vicious, as did many authors of contemporary works of vernacular fiction (ukiyo-zōshi), Chikamatsu stresses their sincerity and capacity for self-sacrifice. But as Takai argues, this was not a simple matter of idealization. Whereas Ohatsu, the heroine of Sonezaki shinjū (1703), hurtles towards love-suicide due to a single-minded desire for love, the heroines of two subsequent Sonezaki plays—Oshima in Shinjū nimai ezōshi (1706) and Osaga in Ikudama shinjū (1715)—must negotiate the tensions between duty (giri) and feeling (). We hence encounter “a representation of prostitutes that is fuller and more multi-dimensional” (p. 142), one that gives the hitherto muted low-ranking prostitute of the pleasure quarters not one but many voices.

Chapter 3 (“Real Voices of Stepmother Heroines: Namiki Sōsuke and Toyotake-za Theater”) concerns the plays of Namiki Sōsuke (1695-1751), a prominent playwright of jōruri’s mid-eighteenth century golden age. After love-suicide plays were banned in 1723, sewamono in general were eclipsed by jidaimono 時代物, plays set in historical times and concerned with Confucian values such as honor, obligation, and filial piety. Though Sōsuke wrote mostly in this genre, the four plays discussed in the chapter actually tended to complicate and in some cases subvert these values, especially in their depiction of stepmothers, who were often caught between obligation to stepchildren and love for biological children. Takai gives a broad overview of the figure of the stepmother in earlier literature and theater before demonstrating how Sōsuke builds darker, more complex characters whose filial conflicts between love and duty often lead to tragedy. The refusal of these characters to toe the official line casts doubt, she argues, “on the morality of prescribed Confucian behavior,” (p. 157) a position that was likely popular with the commoners that made up the audience.

Chapter 4 (“Mythical Heroines and Provincial Daughters: Chikamatsu Hanji and Hamemono”) turns to a reading of several plays by Chikamatsu Hanji (1725-83), a playwright known for his creative adaptations (hamemono) of already existing plays. By Hanji’s time, the conventions of jōruri playwriting had been firmly established and jōruri theater itself had entered into a period of decline, eclipsed by kabuki. It makes sense, then, that Hanji’s plays were mostly adaptations of earlier plays, but they should not as a result be understood as simply conventional. As Takai emphasizes, they are full of novel plot devices and visual effects, as well as intriguing critiques of the political hierarchy. Drawing on readings of Hidakagawa iriai zakura (1759) and Imoseyama onna teikin (1771), Takai argues for the originality of Hanji’s hamemono, in particular his riffs on the figure of the provincial daughter. In classical literature and theater, provincial daughters are frequently associated with the supernatural and often get caught up in romances with nobles in exile. The provincial daughters in each play exemplify this character type at the outset, but by the end they have both suffered a tragic death as political victims of the ruling elite. In this way, Hanji attracted his urban commoner audience with familiar stories and character types that had been adapted in order to voice a subtle critique of the political order.

By combining performance history with literary analysis, Prostitutes, Stepmothers, and Provincial Daughters provides a unique and compelling look at the development of jōruri in the eighteenth century. Takai’s focus on representations of women not only yields fresh readings of old texts, but also proposes a new understanding of “the heart of jōruri” as a “speaking out on behalf of this ordinarily marginalized sphere against the elites for whom the socially subordinated are sacrificed” (p. 264). Scholars of early-modern Japanese theater, as well as literature and history, will undoubtedly find much of interest in Takai’s careful analysis and original thinking.

Ashton Lazarus
Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities
Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts
The University of Chicago

Primary Sources
Plays by Chikamatsu Monzaemon 近松門左衛門 (Sonezaki shinjū 曽根崎心中, Shinjū nimai ezōshi 心中二枚絵草紙, and Ikudama shinjū 生玉心中)
Plays by Namiki Sōsuke 並木宗輔 (Hōjō jirai ki 北条時頼記, Nanto jūsan gane 南都十三鐘, Hibariyama hime no sutematsu 鶊山姫捨松, and Futatsu chōchō kuruwa nikki 双蝶々曲輪日記)
Plays by Chikamatsu Hanji 近松半二 (Hidakagawa iriai zakura 日高川入相花王 and Imoseyama onna teikin 妹背山女庭訓)

Dissertation Information
Columbia University. 2015. 280 pp. Primary Advisor: Haruo Shirane.

Image: Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III), Shinhan Ofusa Tokubei Kasaneizutsu jō Izutsuya no dan, from an untitled series of jōruri libretti, early 1830s. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, 38×25.5cm. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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