Ihara Saikaku understood his modern world. A writer of the Genroku Period, considered the golden age of the Edo era, he lived in the perfect flicker of a moment when peace was reigning, arts and leisure were refined, and the flower of the modern era was slowly starting to unfold into what would be the strife that would follow. Ihara knew that the time of the martial masters, the samurai and the daimyo, were over, and the merchant and the golden coin were the true rulers of Japan. Instead of the aristocracy, with their strict Confucian codes of honor and filial piety, he wrote of the townspeople, the rascals and pleasure seekers, the ones who did most of the real living and dying in Japan.
Like in his The Life of an Amorous Man and This Scheming World (Tuttle Classics of Japanese Literature), "Five Women who Loved Love" is about these average folks, specifically of the lives of five woman who were so bold as to seek love and pleasure, in spite of social attitudes about such things. They are not always admirable women, and their loves are not always beautiful. These are not role models for romanticists, and some of them are little more than aggressive pleasure seekers.
But their stories and real. Saikaku often based these stories off of real accounts, writing up semi-fictional versions of them, in order to flesh out the tale and make sure that a nice little moral lesson was included. This was important, as in order to get by the Shoganate censors it was necessary that all the characters were punished for their breaking the rules of society. But these little moral come-uppances are often just tagged on at the end, and one gets the feeling that Saikaku doesn't really feel that the punishment is fitting the crime. The only crime, in fact, is that these woman wanted love, by whatever definition they applied it.
This Tuttle Press version is also nice in that it contains the original illustrations that were included with Saikaku's version from 1686. There is also a good essay in the back, by Richard Lane, where the original stories of Saikaku's Five Women are told, and the real facts are sifted from the fiction. It provides a nice background to the book, and was very enjoyable.