Five Women Who Loved Love, by Ihara Saikaku.


I have given up on an irritating verbal exercise about the uses of river pebbles and gone back to my book : Five Women Who Loved Love , by Ihara Saikaku ( 1642- 93). So glad that it came into my hands in the last couple of nights, given its dark comedy and use of morality tales that show Saikaku’s bird eye for comedic detail.

Heres a series of men and their women (and boys) trying to make sense of their Floating World and falling into traps of their own making. interestingly, the ends of the tales are not always happy and the subject matter would probably have made the educated classes of Japan squirm something awful.

The writer was a mischief, whose knowledge of aphrodisiacs and male desire borders on hilarity. Poor Gengobei is grieving the loss of two beautiful male lovers, one hastily arranged funeral has him burying his boy standing up in a pot , swearing to a life of celibacy and priesthood only to be seduced away from his path of abstinence by a boy and a girl (successively) – one of whom (again) dies. He is terribly unlucky in love .

A master of the arts, he finds the young boy/woman he adores not alone has no underwear on but is in fact a girl,

Gengobei’s puzzled expression amused Oman, but it was her turn to be puzzled when Gengobei took something from his toilet-bag and put it in his mouth to chew on it.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

Without a word he hid whatever it was- perhaps what lovers of men call nerigi. This too, struck Oman as funny and she turned away to lie face downward.’

Oman, being a pragmatic woman and stalker of the bonze had no illusions about her lover and also being rich , restored him somewhat to the luxury of material wealth. They married and nothing more is really said , Saikaku quietly shuts the door and leaves it to the imagination of his many listeners to guess how the relationship panned out.

In Saikaku’s floating world there are witches, priests, courtesans and professional prostitutes, there are more gay men than you’d find in the Genet novel , Our Lady of the Flowers and priests generally tend to emerge from the classes of the broken hearts. Celibacy ain’t an issue either for them.

Stories (more properly tales) of luminosity abound here, so a brief list of the story names and a recommendation to read the book:

The Story of Seijuro in Himeji , The Barrel-maker Brimful of love, What the Seasons Brought the Almamanac Maker, The Green-Grocer’s daughter with a Bundle of Love and the aforementioned anti-hero Gengobei, the Mountain of love.

Be warned theses tales are peppered with morality lore, though it may seem weirdly topsy-turvy when even the true end up stabbed through the heart , lying exposed in the Field of Shame whilst her supposed lover is executed and laid beside the hapless victim of the heart… (according to the irate husband , whose voice alone carries weight in law)

I suppose the title comes from the sub-text that runs through all the stories , the women are generally both pragmatic and realist even to their deaths, whilst the men seem subject to the vagaries of the heart !

Five Women who loved love. Ihara Saikaku. Trans, WM Theodore De Bary  The New English Library Company 1962. Five Women Who Loved Love , Ihara Saikaku.

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