Donald Keene :: The most famous of these dramatists was Chikamatsu, who lived at the end and functioned mainly at the end of the seventeenth and the early part of the eighteenth century.
Chikamatsu himself was a member of the samurai class, but he became a playwright and insisted that his name be attached to his plays. In the past people of the samurai class would have considered that beneath their dignity to be known as a playwright, a demeaning profession. But he was a professional.
His first play about people of his own time, one of the most important plays in the history of Japanese theater, was a play called the "Love Suicides at Sonezaki." The story is that he heard about this event of a young man and a young woman who had committed suicide in the wood at Sonezaki, which is in the city of Osaka. I think this is probably the first time in the history of the drama of the world that an ordinary person, a common man or in this case a man who works in a shop where they sell soy sauce, is made the hero of a tragedy. The heroes of tragedy following Aristotle were generally considered people of superior social status to the audience: a king, prince, general, or someone of that sort was the only kind of person considered to be appropriate for a tragedy. And if commoners appeared on the stage, they were generally in comic parts. The oaf from the country who can never get anything right, and so on. But in the play of Sonezaki Shinju, the participants in the shinju, which is a love suicide, at the end of the play, a man who works in a shop and a prostitute, not a grand courtesan, but an ordinary prostitute, and these two people who might have been thought unworthy to be the hero and heroine of tragedy, at the end by the nobility of their love, their self-sacrificing love, earn our admiration and also our tears.
It's an extremely moving play. A short play, beautifully written. Some of the most beautiful Japanese I know of is in the final scene when the two of them set off for Sonezaki, the wood where they know they are going to die. He is going to be faced with the terrible necessity of killing the woman he loves.
[Excerpt from Love Suicides at Sonezaki]
They cling to each other, weeping bitterly, And wish, as many a lover has wished, That night would last a little longer. The heartless summer night is short as ever, And soon the cock crows chase away their lives…
Donald Keene :: The puppet play was such... the Love Suicides at Sonezaki was so popular that Chikamatsu wrote a number of other plays on similar subjects. But eventually the government stepped in because too many young couples were committing suicide. It was a dangerous trend.