May 1, 2011
Yesterday, at the Far East Film Festival (Udine), I’ve seen “Villain” (悪人) by Lee Sang-il, based on the homonymous novel by Yoshida Shuichi, in which a girl falls in love with a murderer and runs away with him.
Now I am not talking about the film, but about another “crazy thing people do for love”, that is to say shinjuu or double suicide.
In common parlance, the world shinjuu (心中) is used to refer to any group suicide of persons bound by love, typically lovers, but also parents and children and whole families.
Double suicide by lovers is a popular topic in Japanese theatre, which has a whole repertory of plays (the oldest was probably “The Soga Successors” in 1683) in which two people, being their ninjou (人情, human feelings) are at odds with giri (義理, social obbligation), decide to commit suicide together, in order to meet again in afterlife. The tragic act is usually preceded by a michiyuki (道行), a small journey in which the two people evoke their happier moments and spend their last time together.
To understand this custom, we have to remember how Japanese view on suicide is far different from the western one, valuing honour of life over its lenght. This is influenced by Buddhism, which, unlike Christianity, doesn’t consider suicide as sinful. Suicide is even seen as an honourable or expected act, as in the cases of seppuku or kamikaze; actually, talking about suicide in Japanese culture might take forever, so going back to the specific issue of suicide for love, it is worth mentioning how it was influenced also by the belief, spread in Pure Land Buddhism, that the bond between husband and wife is continued into the next world (while the one with kids was supposed to last only in this world).
However, double suicide of lover was another matter, since it suggested a kind of freedom of love, which was considered anti-social in feudal Japan, so it was seen as an act of rebellion. The death of a courtesan was also a huge
economical loss for her owner. Nevertheless, such a practice was common among star crossed lovers, that were also inspired by fictional examples: the performance of “The Love Suicides at Sonezaki” by Chikamatsu (1703), based on a real story, was followed by so many cases of young people committing shinjuu, that government had to ban the performances of double suicide plays altogether in 1723.
Literally, the word “shinjuu” does not mean “suicide” but “inside the hearth” and originally meant simply any way to prove faithful love between a courtesan and her lover. It could have been a special letter of a vow or a few hairs, or a tattoo on the arm, or even to cut off a little finger. This custom became so fashionable that special boxes for keeping those items were on sale – and, as a consequence, those means of proof came to be undervalued, so that suicide was regarded to be the only trustworthy way to prove one’s true love.