Hiroshi Sugimoto’s production of The Love Suicides at Sonezaki is a rare opportunity to see a contemporary revival of a Japanese classic, performed by virtuosic artists. Using Bunraku puppets to express the story and embracing at times a modern aesthetic, this production recently played at the White Light Festival.
Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) is arguably Japan’s greatest playwright (often Eurocentrically called “the Shakespeare of Japan”). The prolific Edo period dramatist is especially well-known for his jōruri (puppet) dramas. Chikamatsu’s “love suicide” plays are based on real events and center around ordinary, middle- or working-class characters. They also caused a sensation—and a rash of copycat suicides following the first performance of his play The Love Suicides at Sonezaki in 1703—to the extent that the Tokugawa shogunate banned performances of such plays in 1723.
It is with The Love Suicides at Sonezaki that Chikamatsu first suggested the powerful idea that lovers who consummated their relationship in a double suicide would reunite in a Buddhist paradise, revolutionarily joining romantic love to religious belief.
The Love Suicides at Sonezaki tells the tragic love story of Tokubei, a clerk at an Osakan soy sauce shop, and Ohatsu, a prostitute at the Tenma House. Tokubei hopes to buy Ohatsu her freedom, but his uncle and employer, who wishes for Tokubei to marry his wife’s niece, contrives with his stepmother to have her accept the dowry on his behalf. When Tokubei rejects the marriage plan, he is disowned and must pay back the dowry. He gets the money back from his stepmother, only to loan it to Kuheiji, an oil-merchant who promises to pay it back before Tokubei’s own repayment deadline, but then denies the loan, claiming Tokubei forged the IOU, beating and humiliating him in public. With no hope for the future, Tokubei and Ohatsu decide to kill themselves, so their souls will be together in the afterlife.
The narrative follows a classic jōruri structure and can seem strange to Western audiences more focused on plot and action. It is divided into three parts with most of the instigating events having already taken place.
Like much of classic drama worldwide, the deep love between the protagonists is taken for granted before the play even starts, and it can be hard to find much empathy for Tokubei when, aside from his love for Ohatsu, his main defining characteristic seems to be that he is incredibly naïve. One wonders if Chikamatsu, even as he creates poetry around a love suicide, also wants his audiences to see the incredible waste of young lives. Although characterization is limited to type, when Ohatsu sobs over the thought of not seeing her still-living parents again, it is truly saddening. A single chanter (Radayu Toyotake, Todayu Toyotake, Rosetayu Toyotake, Nozomidayu Toyotake, taking turns at the mic) provides all narration and dialogue; in many ways, the performance resembles a dramatized epic poem.
All of the performers were apprenticed at a young age, taking the name of their teachers, and they all demonstrate that embodied level of craft that results from such an intense, near life-long training. Without having any sort of a trained ear for the vocal technique of jōruri narration or shamisen music, the skill is discernable. The delivery of both is energized and muscular, building atmosphere, suspense, and drama.
I do have a long-time love for Bunraku style puppetry, which replicates human movement with beautiful fluidity, and—in this truly classical execution—small conventionalized stylistic flourishes original to the form. The small subtle movements of Bunraku can make for magical moments of human recognition and the finely coordinated puppeteers of this production achieved several of these. There is a real delight too when the puppeteers pull off the illusion of complex actions such as Ohatsu untying her obi, or Tokubei removing his hat.
Although the craft on display remains traditional, director Sugimoto has created a contemporary aesthetic for his revival of the classic. The usual romantic and strictly representative sets (similar to what one might see in a traditional opera production but sized to puppets) are replaced by a much sleeker and more abstract design. Dramatically focused lighting illuminates the puppets and often defines the playing space, with the shamisen players and chanters more softly lit in their traditional stage-left playing space, and flutes and bells ringing out unseen from the darkness on the other side of the auditorium.
Sugimoto is a multidisciplinary artist and his and Tabaimo’s video animation provides an abstract and surreal backdrop to the first part, as the character Ohatsu rushes from shrine to shrine. The second part offers a more representational, though still streamlined set with select architectural elements creating the space of the Tenma house. The third and final section is also closer to realism—the screen projection now showing the woods where Ohatsu and Tokubei will kill themselves, and a slim rod suggesting the bridge they cross.
I would be tempted to reverse this design progression and move from the more representational towards the abstract. With all puppetry, and perhaps especially Bunraku, the audience needs a moment to learn how to look at the puppets—to mentally forget the three puppeteers in black that manipulate them, and to attune their focus to the detailed movements that make the wooden doll so empathetic. The opening projection would make an interesting piece of visual art as is, but the large lit screen and dramatic black and white graphics overshadows the subtle movements of the three-foot puppet downstage. The frame provided by the veranda and door of the second part offered visual relief; no longer floating in the darkness, the puppets had greater character.
It is gratifying to see an artist such as Sugimoto reinvigorate a classic text and form by creating a contemporary performance space, but despite his awareness of the continued urgency of the themes of “Eros and Thanatos” in our “dead-end” times (as articulated in his director’s note), there is a distance that this production just doesn’t quite breach.
There are flashes of emotion, but the abstraction and fine artistry remain rather coolly detached from the youthful romantic tragedy at its core. The Love Suicides at Sonezaki is beautiful and brings a distinct artistic vision to what could otherwise become a soulless museum piece, and yet a little more “soul” is still needed for a fully rewarding performance.