Kyokutei Bakin (曲亭馬琴) (author 1767 – 1848)

Chosakudō (pseudonym - 著作堂)



"Late Edo writer of yomihon and kusazōshi. Bakin's learning and troubled life correspond to the elements in the make-up of the other great author of prose narrative at the time, Ueda Akinari. But he was more ambitious for his family, and had ambiguous attitudes toward the very art to which he devoted his energies and eyesight...."

"Not to speak of various casual writing, this indefatigable writer was author of haikai, sharebon, kokkeibon, zuihitsu, and imitations of Chinese as well as Japanese classics. What might be termed his apprentice years (ignoring the doings of his youth) were marked by a collection of earlier haikai, Haikai Kobunko 俳諧古文庫 (A Little Haikai Library, 1787). Four years later, he brought out a kibyōshi, Tsukai Hatashite Nibu Kyōgen 尽用而二分狂言 ['A Night at the Hachiman Shirine']. From about 1803 to 1807, he published his first yomihon. Among five or six principle titles there are Sumidagawa Bairyū Shinsho 墨田川梅柳新書 (The Plum and the Willow by the Sumida River, 1807) and Sanshichi Zenden Nanka no Yume 三七全伝南柯夢 (The Complete Story of Osan and Hanshichi, 1808). Bakin was in his full stride."

"At this time he began the first of his four major works, (Chinsetsu) Yumiharizuki (椿説) 弓張月 (The Crescent Moon). Drawing on Chinese plots (as he did so often) and on the life of Minamoto Tametomo (1139-1170), he wrote and wrote, bringing out this long work in 1811. Two years later, he had printed Beibei Kyōdan 皿皿郷談 (Talk in Rural Dialect), which draws on the Ochikubo Monogatari, in a way casting its love plot into terms of karma. Although he was already at work on his longest and most famous creation, he began Kinseisetsu Bishōnenroku 近世說美少年錄 (Golden Youths in Recent Times) in 1828, and had it published six years later. In a fashion typical of his mature writing, this work draws on both a Chinese plot and a genuine native historical setting, featuring virtuous and villainous characters (here in particular the youths referred to in the title) and a rapid agitation of plot. It is by no means a short tale."

"Bakin's masterpiece is usually thought to be the last major work he completed (Nansō Satomi) Hakkenden 南総里見八犬伝 (The Story of Eight Virtuous Heroes), which he worked on for almost twenty-five years (1814-1832). It consists of all nine shū and ninety-eight parts (kan...). He resembles Balzac in that only he can be said to have read every word he wrote, and this work is one reason why that is so.Hakkenden is highly moral, and the contrast between good and evil characters is one of the few guides the reader has in a plot almost explosive with new events and sudden shifts. Chinese models, Japanese history, and an extra-ordinary gift for invention from them characterize the work."

"Bakin had the energy of Ihara Saikaku with a cramped sense of the world deriving from his own experiences of it. The rapid fluctuation of plot testifies to a need to achieve personal freedom within cramping, but by the time he came to devote so many years to this long work, even he could not say whether the compulsion to write brought a sense of freedom from his afflictions or whether it was a symptom of them. It does seem clear that his chivalric world and heightened style provided him riches that his own straitened life was far from offering him. It should be emphasized that this and other mature works do not offer easy, Trollopian plots or episodic, disjointed stories like those in Dicken's Pickwick Papers, but rapid, complex, integrated narrative in a style constantly heightened, agitated. Whatever the rewards Bakin may have felt such art brought him, and they do not seem to be many, the cost in effort is as impressive in result as it is appalling in what it implies of his personal life."

Quoted from: The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature, pp.191-192.


In Kevin P. Mulholland's doctoral thesis Twilight Reflections of Kyokutei Bakin (1767-1848): An Annotated Translation of “Chosakudō kyūsaku ryaku jihyō tekiyō” presented in 2016 to the University of Michigan, the author wrote on page 26 that Bakin met in early 1830 a number of other authors at the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi. Bakin wrote to a friend that "...he met with Tanehiko, the current Enba, and Shunsui at the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi’s residence. The substance of this discussion appears to be Tanehiko’s evaluation of Hakkenden, which Bakin relates as gushing with praise, too longwinded to put forth in a letter."

Nishimura Yohachi is the publisher of the Kuniyoshi Hakkenden prints found in the Lyon Collection.

On page 34 Mulholland notes Bakin's frustration with the author Shunsui who was producing works which were riding on the fame of the Hakkenden and other works by him. "Also, Bakin is aware of how Shunsui piggybacks on the success of Hakkenden by writing imitative novels. Finally, and connected to Shunsui’s ability to alter previously published works, Bakin is acutely aware that ownership of a creative work lies in the hands of the publisher holding the woodblocks, not the writer." [The choice of bold type is ours and not the author's.]

On page 36 Mulholland says that originally Bakin considered using bulls instead of dogs in what became his magnum opus, but that in the end he decided to use dogs because they were closer to humans in their quality of loyalty and devotion. However, Shunsui and one of his publishers did use bulls as super-human heroes, but that project was short-lived.