Jidaimono (時代物) are Japanese kabuki or jōruri plays that feature historical plots and characters, often famous samurai battles. These are in contrast to sewamono (世話物), contemporary plays, which generally focus on commoners and domestic issues. Jidaimono is usually translated as "period plays". Film and television productions in this mode are called jidaigeki (時代劇), and share many of the same features.
As the stereotypical audience for jōruri and kabuki were commoners (chōnin), stories involving court nobles and heroic samurai were of a more distant subject matter than those that dealt with contemporary, urban commoner themes. Even though many of the viewers may have been samurai, the Edo period in which these plays were largely composed and performed was a period of peace, and so the notion of fierce battles and heroic sacrifices was still something of a romanticized escape for these samurai, just as historical dramas are for us today.
Stories were almost always derived from classic epics (monogatari) or from other historical sources, and it was not at all uncommon for elements to be changed. Characters might be invented, or elements of their histories changed, to make the story more interesting or to otherwise serve the author's purposes. Though most of these stories derive originally from historical fact, the sources used by the playwrights were more legend than accurate narratives, and fantastic or magical elements were further added by the playwrights. Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura serves as a good example of this. The play revolves around actual historical figures of the Genpei War, including Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his retainer Benkei. But the historically false conceit that certain Taira clan generals survived and remain in hiding is central to the plot, and the kitsune (fox-spirit) character Genkurō is of course also invented.
In addition, though jidaimono almost always take place in the distant past, they often were intended to make reference to contemporary events. For much of the Edo period, the depiction of contemporary events, in particular, depictions of the shōguns and criticism of the Tokugawa shogunate, were strictly banned. As a result, plays were designed to use historical or literary references as metaphors for current events. The famous play Kanadehon Chūshingura, also known as the tale of the Forty-seven rōnin, is a fine example of this. Though the actual forty-seven rōnin and the events surrounding their attempts at revenge for their lord took place in the early 18th century, only a few decades before the play debuted, it was depicted onstage as taking place in the 14th century, and the names of all the principal figures involved were changed.
In many other plays, the Minamoto clan, from whom the Tokugawa shōguns claimed descent, were used to represent the shogunate. The Taira clan, who lost the Genpei War to the Minamoto in the 1180s, commonly were represented as oppressed or wronged, and symbolized the playwrights' (and perhaps the actors') criticisms of the Tokugawa government. The same Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura mentioned earlier is an excellent example of this, as is Battles of Coxinga, which tells of the Ming Dynasty loyalist Coxinga who fought against the Qing Dynasty in the late 17th century.
Generally speaking, many of the most flamboyant and bombastic kabuki plays are jidaimono, as they tend to feature over-the-top representations of samurai heroes and villains, kami, and some of the most famous figures in Japanese history. Commoners, the protagonists of sewamono, by contrast, are usually portrayed fairly plainly. Of course, where samurai, courtesans, geisha and the like appear in sewamono, they too can have quite elaborate costumes and appearances.
- Sekai, "vertical plot" / shuko, "horizontal plot"
- Katsureki, a subgenre of living history plays meant to be accurate, not romanticized