Fantastic and Realistic Elements in The Greengrocer’s Daughter and Life of a Sensuous Man by Ihara Saikaku

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In the stories ‘The Greengrocer’s daughter’ and ‘Life of a Sensuous Man’ both by Ihara Saikaku, the writer combines ‘realistic’ and ‘fantastic’ elements to create an experience of love, sadness and the dangers of indulging in one’s own pleasures in the readers’ own mind. The ‘realistic’ elements throughout both of Saikaku’s works allow readers to be more aware of the story’s environment and relate to the characters’ feelings and desires. On the other hand, the ‘fantastic’ elements that the author incorporates at the same time, exaggerates, the characters’ emotions and desires to an extent, as well as their described intelligence and physical beauty. However, without the combination of both ‘realistic’ and ‘fantastic’ elements, it would diminish a reader’s interest, curiosity and imagination of the experience.

The ‘realistic’ and “fantastic’ elements throughout this essay will be referred as the believability of something. This means that ‘realistic’ elements are the believable things that can occur in everyday life, thus these are ideas that are natural and true to life in this world. On the other hand, ‘fantastic’ elements refer to ideas that are hard to believe or very unlikely to happen. These ‘fantastic’ elements can be ideas that are hard for the reader to accept or imagine in this world, despite the outcome being good or bad.

In the story, ‘The Greengrocer’s daughter’ from ‘Five Women Who Loved Love’, what makes the story realistic and believable is Saikaku’s use of descriptive language of the story’s environment which helps draw a vivid, life-like experience in the readers minds. Throughout the first half of the story, Saikaku gives context to the setting and describes a lot about the time of the year, its seasons, and the weather. For example, “A fierce winter wind blew in from the northeast and clouds moved with swift feet through the December sky.” (Saikaku 159), “it was close to the end of the year, at midnight on the twenty-eight, when come houses caught fire and great panic arose.”(160) and “…terrified at the crashes of the thunder, which shook worms from the ground.”(167). Saikaku allows readers to dive into the story with not only context but with emotions like ‘panic’ and ‘terror’. This kind of writing can bring a reader into the situation as if they were there experiencing the moment themselves. Therefore, Saikaku’s description of the story’s setting plays an important part of producing a ‘realistic’ element that makes a fictional story seem real and relatable.

Another ‘realistic’ element in Saikaku’s work are the desires, curiosities and temptations of love that the two young protagonists held throughout the story. Oshichi, the protagonist and daughter of a greengrocer, daydreams about the attractive samurai boy, Kichisaburo, who Oshichi assists in removing a splinter out of his index finger. In the story, curiosity strikes Oshichi and she desires to find out more about him, “As time went by Oshichi took a deep fancy to him.” (166). Whether it’s in the past or in the modern world today, it is normal for people to think about the people and the things they like. Thus, it is also natural and realistic for Oshichi to want to help Kichisaburo and know more about him as she has feelings for him.

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However, readers of this story in the Tokugawa period may have been commoners (similar to Oshichi’s social status) who could relate to the protagonist’s feelings but was never able to express it due to society’s standards and values. Or perhaps, other circumstances in people’s lives that obligate them to do certain things that fit with society’s standard. For example, marriages during that period in Japan were mostly arranged by third party or the approval of one’s parents or elders (Kurihara, sec. 1; par. 2). Therefore, the chances of marrying the person you want was difficult. However, Saikaku gave the readers of this story the ability to experience a natural and curious but desperate kind of young love of Edo.

At the same moment, the ‘fantastic’ elements of the story tell that both Oshichi and Kichisaburo persist exceedingly strong for their love even if it goes hard against society’s standards. Firstly, despite their social statuses, a beautiful greengrocer’s daughter and a handsome samurai youth come together by love at first sight. In reality, it is hard to accept the fact that both characters are described to have a socially desired physical appearance and that the two come from extremely different social positions but happen to fall in love with each other at such ease. However, this is what creates a more attractive and exciting experience about young love in Tokugawa for Saikaku’s readers. Secondly, Kichisaburo, despite his high social status, decides to disguise himself as a country boy in order to see Oshichi, knowing that “a samurai shouldn’t be utterly infatuated with women.” (sec. 1; par. 2). For the people back in the days, it is probably an extremely ridiculous behaviour for Kichisaburo, a samurai to make such sacrifices like that for a commoner’s daughter. Perhaps what fascinates the readers more is Saikaku’s idea for the characters to have such exaggerated emotions and behaviour. But without the mixture of these ‘realistic’ and ‘fantastic’ elements in the story of ‘The Greengrocer’s daughter’, the tale would not be as relatable yet unexpecting for readers to enjoy.

In Saikaku’s other work, ‘Life of a Sensuous Man’, a ‘realistic’ element throughout the story is the stages in life and changes that Yonosuke the male protagonist, experiences. As living beings, humans especially, it is life that we can physically, mentally and spiritually experience pleasure, growth and change, thus Yonosuke did so in the story. When people grow older, its natural to start contemplating about life: the way you’ve spend your time, the people and things that came into your life. In the story, Yonosuke had spent his whole fortune indulging in his own physical pleasures. By the age of sixty, the story doesn’t inform the readers about the goodness of the pleasures which Yonosuke experiences throughout his whole life. Instead, the author writes about how Yonosuke realises that the path he had taken only leaves his soul lost and wandering in a state after death, but before next life (James Brandon et al., Shirane, Haruo, editor. 55). This state relates to the Buddhist teaching of the 49 days after one’s death.

It is told that during this time, it is a period for the spirit of the person who died to “check their consciousness and digest their karma.” (Lerch, par.1) In other words, this determines the person’s next life when they are reborn in this world again. For Yonosuke to realise that his soul is in this state, to the reader it seems as if all the pleasures he had in his life were meaningless at the every end. All these physical things only brought Yonosuke emptiness and loss. The ‘realistic’ element of this story hits the reader with feelings of the miserable consequences of Yonosuke’s experiences. It reminds readers the dangers of indulging in one’s own desires, and that wealth can certainly bring somebody momentarily pleasures. However, ‘time’, a person’s biggest asset, if not spent well can leave them with experiences like Yonosuke’s, emptiness and the difficulty of leaving the physical things of this world behind.

On the other hand, a ‘fantastic’ element that shaped the story ‘Life of a Sensuous Man’ was the design of Yoshino, the female protagonist’s character and the decisions she made which may influence or inspire a reader, especially women during the Edo period of Japan. In the story, Yoshino was a Tayu – a high ranked performing women in the licensed quarters of Kyoto, who had the power to choose who they wanted to serve. However, there was also a strict rule that a Tayu wasn’t permitted to meet men of lower statuses (46). What makes Yoshino’s character ‘fantastic’ is that with her said beauty, skills, and intelligence in the story, she breaks the quarter’s rules, makes multiple outrageous risks and sacrifices for men with deep feelings for her. In the story, Yoshino secretly calls an apprentice smith to meet her after hearing about the strength of the man’s feelings for him. Not caring about the quarter’s rules, she allows the man of a low social position to sleep with her.

Secondly, it mentions that Yoshino “thinks of Yonosuke’s feelings in everything she did” and that she “even gave up smoking her pipe for him.” (52). Lastly, the beauty, skills and intelligence of Yoshino convinced Yonosuke’s women relatives after attending Yoshino’s self-directed entertainment, it’s hard to imagine in real life that all of them passionately agreed to the lover’s desire to marry each other. As it was particularly difficult for Japanese women, even the well-educated, to have any say in who she wants to marry (Friedman, par. 5). These ‘fantastic’ element through Yoshino, granted readers an experience of courage to choose the path of their lives for themselves and to pursue what their hearts felt.

The combination of the ‘realistic’ and ‘fantastic’ elements throughout ‘Life of a Sensuous Man’ and “The Greengrocer’s Daughter’, creates messages with aspects of reality that remind readers of their lives, resonating with the audience’s thoughts, desires and perhaps struggles in life. However, with a dose of Saikaku’s humuour and exaggeration, it brings surprises and unexpecting ideas which may be what ultimately attracts people, of the Tokugawa period and of today to understand and these fictional stories.

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