May 24, 2009

Chikamatsu Monogatari: Public Law and Private Justice

Chikamatsu Monogatari has been translated and sold to the West in different ways. Some have it that the most appropriate title is 'The Crucified Lovers', others that the literal translation from the Japanese 'A story from Chikamatsu' is the most apt to convey what the film is about. I bring up the title because in a sense the discussion of the title is really the discussion of the film's theme- this is both a tale about lovers thwarted by marriage and a tale about traditional Japan. It ostentatiously from the first frame wears the garb of a folktale and of a romance. It is important to bear that in mind when you watch and analyse the film because the two strands intermingle- ultimately the real virtue of this film lies not in the romance but in the historical analysis. It is as I hope to show as a folktale that we should understand this story- and as a folktale that tells us something about the concept of law and the way that private law works in a society.

The film is about an act of adultery. It is beleived by Ishun a wealthy printer that Mohei, his leading apprentice, and his young wife, Osan, are having an affair. The printer himself has been making advances to the pretty young maid Otama- we shall return to this in a moment. Ishun rebukes both Mohei and Osan- they flee his unjustified rage and end up falling in love in their flight. The psychological details of the flight of the two lovers is what most critics focus upon and the essense and even existence of their love has been an item of analysis by most people looking at this film- but I want to focus elsewhere. When we first see Ishun we see him and his wife and Mohei inhabiting a complex- a complex which contains tens of maids and men working in unison and providing calendars for the court. Ishun dominates this scene- we see quite clearly that Mohei beleives that he must sacrafice his own life to Ishun's family's prestige- furthermore we see that his employees cannot leave. Otama speculates about leaving because of Ishun's sexual abuse but ultimately decides that she cannot- some tie, 'contract', binds her to him. Otama's situation and Mohei's feelings are one would expect universal. The third relationship binding his servants to Ishun is that they seek to advance on his coattails.

When Mohei and Osan flee, they place Ishun in a difficult position. Ishun keeps stressing to the men that he sends out to find them that they must return with Osan- not Mohei but they must bring Osan back to him. Here we enter one of the most interesting dynamics of the film- that of reputation. Ishun ultimately risks everything in this particular exchange. Ishun's position as the printer to the court is under threat should it be revealed that he has been cuckolded. Furthermore because of that, he is forced to conceal the adultery of Mohei and Osan which involves him in the further crime of covering up a criminal offence. We can only understand Ishun's plight if we relate it to his power: Ishun's power derives from his sovereignty over his printing workshop (I use the word sovereignty deliberately). When Mohei and Osan leave him, they call into question that sovereignty. In essence they damn his ability to administer his own private law within his own domain: the reason incidentally why his own fumbling attempts on Otama are not so damaging to his regime is that they call into question his morality but not his sovereignty. In order for Ishun to maintain his plausibility as a source of private law and government- he has to maintain power over his subordinates- including in this deeply sexist and hierarchical society, his skilled printer and his wife. The fact that he does not do this ushers him towards his ruin.

What I think is captured therefore by the film is an interesting point about the power and role of prejudice. All the way through the film people talk about reputation and in particular the reputation of the family unit- in a sense that is what Ishun is controlling in his printing workshop- a wider family (or familia). The basis of the importance of that family unit is that it is as we see in Ishun's workshop a unit of government- a source of private judgement, justice and law. The only regulation on that system is the outside force of reputation and prejudice- should Ishun be proved incapable of maintaining his control he loses everything. The ritual humiliation of having his wife and leading servant crucified upon a public cross is secondary to the fact that the master printer will lose all his associations and be devoured by those eager to take his place. If Mohei and Osan at the end of the film go serenely to their deaths, it may be because they have discovered their love for each other, but it may also be because in their inevitable destruction (inevitable from the moment that Ishun accused them) they have savoured the sweet taste of revenge.

For us though the film should prompt a reconsideration of the way that the nature of prejudice has changed across the centuries. It has a vital role in a society in which private law functions because it is the system by which the public regulates the private law administered by princes or printers, that function may become less important as you make a transition to a modern state which has relationships not with families or familias but with individuals.