First great love suicide drama


Sonezaki Shinju

Kabuki Plus

by Suzuki Tami

Historical truth of Sonezaki love suicide

There was an actual Tokubei, 25 years old, who was a nephew of Hirano Chuemon, a soy sauce merchant in Osaka. Ohatsu, 21, was initially a courtesan at Kyoto but moved to Tenmaya in nearby Osaka. The couple had an intimate relationship, but Ohatsu had an offer from a client while Tokubei became engaged to the owner’s adopted daughter and was told he had to move to Edo. Despairing of their fate, they committed joint suicide in the woods of Sonezaki in April 1703.

Chikamatsu Monzaemon

Japan’s most celebrated playwright. He was born in 1653 to a samurai in Echizen Province (today’s Fukui Prefecture). His father later moved to Kyoto, where Chikamatsu served in a noble household. From 25, he began to write both puppet and Kabuki scripts for the noted actor Sakata Tojuro. After the great success of Sonezaki Shinju, he concentrated mainly on puppet scripts as the main writer for the Takemoto-za. His works are known for their depiction of people torn between love and societal duty. Died in 1724 at age 72.

First commoners in Japanese puppet theater


Various Kabuki versions touched upon the Sonezaki love suicide immediately after its occurrence in April 1703, followed by the puppet version in May. This was the first tale involving commoners in a Bunraku theater. It became a smash hit thanks to the emotional delivery of the narrator and the adeptness of the puppeteer Hachirobei I. It instantly revived the fortunes of the struggling theater, which paid off its debt and became a major theatrical force.

Popularity of love suicides

Sonezaki Shinju’s success bred other plays on the love suicide theme, including several masterworks by Chikamatsu himself. The popularity of these dramas inspired a number of actual love suicides, totaling 36 within two years of Sonezaki’s debut. Suicide was regarded as a crime. The dead bodies would be displayed in public; if one or both parties survived the suicide attempt, they were punished. When this failed to stop the flow of joint suicides, the government responded by prohibiting the use of the term “love suicide” (shinju) in the theater, ordering the use instead of the term “mutual death”. In 1723, it forbid all dramas and publications dealing with the subject.

Drama’s revival by Uno Nobuo

There were a number of revisions of both the Kabuki and puppet versions after the premiere. But its popularity slowly faded, and performances were eventually discontinued. In 1953, dramatist Uno Nobuo adapted and directed a version with music by Nozawa Matsunosuke. This played at the Embujo Theater in Tokyo, starring Nakamura Ganjiro II and Nakamura Senjaku II as the lovers.

New type of female portrayal


Senjaku II was only 20 when he played Ohatsu. He was a young actor training under the director Takechi Tetsuji. In the Tenmaya scene, Ohatsu drops her bare foot down to Tokubei to ask his willingness to participate in the joint suicide. Senjaku’s beautiful and sensual performance shocked the audience. Traditionally, female roles are played in a reserved manner, but Senjaku became so wrapped up in the final scene that he took the lead, grabbing Tokubei’s hand and driving him to carry through with the suicide plan. Senjaku’s breathtaking delivery of the lines and his natural beauty created a new portrayal of woman, full of character. His popularity led to a Senjaku boom.

Bunraku play also revived

Encouraged by the popularity of the Kabuki performance, the author also revised the puppet version, which had long dropped from the repertoire. Upon its restaging in Osaka in 1955, the piece became, and remains, one of the most popular and revived shows in the puppet theater.

Final performance

Senjaku II, later awarded the name of Ganjiro III and finally the storied name of Sakata Tojuro IV, played the role of Ohatsu for 61 years from the premiere of the revised version until his final and 1,351st performance in April 2014 at the Kabukiza Theater. In recent years, the role has also been taken by Tojuro’s second son Senjaku III and his grandson Ichitaro. The role of Tokubei was played from its premiere through 1980 by Tojuro’s father, Ganjiro II, and later by Tojuro’s oldest son, Kanjaku V.