This play was first staged at the Toyotakeza Theatre in 1751.
Asked by Yoritomo, chief of the Genji Clan, to lead the Genji expeditionary force in a crucial battle against the Heike Clan, his younger brother Yoshitsune is preparing his plans with his leading retainers at his Horikawa mansion in Kyoto. Tokitada, father of Yoshitsune's wife Kyo-no-Kimi, comes to see Yoshitsune to give him two of the three sacred treasures of the Emperor, a mirror and a necklace made of precious stones, which he has managed to steal from the Heike guardians. He has failed to secure the third treasure, a sword, because it is carried by the Emperor Antoku himself.
Tokitada, who is in conspiracy with Yoshitsune even though he owes allegiance to the Heike Clan, also gives Yoshitsune a map showing the location of Heike troops preparing to fight off the Genji attack.
Kikunomae, daughter of Shunzei, a court noble, brings to Yoshitsune a strip of paper bearing a poem written by Tadanori of the Heike Clan. Shunzei, who has been commanded by the Emperor to compile an anthology of poems entitled Senzaishu, would like to include that of Tadanori because of its merit and has sent Kikunomae to Yoshitsune to ask his approval. Yoshitsune reads the poem and praises it but Tokitada opposes the inclusion, saying that Tadanori is an enemy of the Emperor. Angered by his opposition, Kikunomae begins quarreling with him but Yoshitsune intervenes and persuades them to leave the matter to his discretion.
After Kikunomae has gone, Yoritomo’s messengers, Rokuyata and Kumagai, visit Yoshitsune. Rokuyata presents to Yoshitsune Yoritomo's letter urging him to begin his attack on the Heike force as soon as possible. Kumagai advises Yoshitsune to go to the battlefront immediately, for some retainers of Yoritomo have told him that Yoshitsune is so attracted by his pretty wife that he is hesitant to carry through his planned offensive.
Yoshitsune laughs at the false accusation and expresses his confidence in defeating the enemy, for he has not only carefully worked out his strategy but also obtained a map showing the locations of the enemy troops. He then ties the strip of paper bearing Tadanori's poem to a twig from a cherry tree and tells Rokuyata to carry it to the house of Tadanori and tell him that Yoshitsune has decided to include his poem in the Senzaishu as the work of an anonymous poet.
Yoshitsune then gives Kumagai a wooden notice board showing a warning that anyone who has broken a twig of a cherry tree shall have his finger cut oft. The warning represents Yoshitsune's cleverly disguised order to Kumagai not to kill Atsumori, a young Heike warrior who is actually the Retired Emperor's son. The hidden meaning can be understood if one bears in mind that the words "twig", "finger" and "child" are phonetically the same in Japanese, all being pronounced silt. If "twig" and "finger" in Yoshitsune's message are replaced with "child," the message will read: "Anyone who has killed a child (referring to Atsumori) shall have his child (referring to Kumagai's son) killed."
Routed from Kyoto by the Genji forces, Tsunemori, nephew of Kiyomori, head of the Heike Clan, is temporarily staying in a house at Fukuhara, Hyogo (the present Kobe). With him are his wife Fujinokata, foster son Atsumori and Tamaori, Atsumori's betrothed. Tsunemori has adopted Tamaori, daughter of Tokitada, in preparation for her marriage to Atsumori.
However, Tokitada, who is in conspiracy with Yoshitsune, wishes to break this engagement, and to marry her to Hirayama, a Genji warrior. He sends Gemba as his messenger to Tsunemori's quarters, to tell him of his wish. Tsunemori and Fujinokata reluctantly agree, but when Gemba is about to take Tamaori into his palanquin Tamaori suddenly grabs his sword and stabs him to death.
Tsunemori and Fujinokata make Atsumori and Tamaori perform a wedding ceremony. Tsunemori tells Atsumori to drink from the wedding cup first and then hand it to Tamaori. A lady-in-waiting reminds Tsunemori that it is the established rule that the bride drinks first and turns the cup over to the groom. Tsunemori tells her that Atsumori is an exception because he is actually the Retired Emperor's son who may some day be acknowledged as the heir to the Throne.
The wedding ceremony over, Tsunemori advises Atsumori to go up to Kyoto with Tamaori and Fujinokata to join his father, the Retired Emperor. Atsumori, however, insists that he must go to the battlefront. Tsunemori dissuades Atsumori with a threat to kill himself unless Atsumori does as he says. Atsumori, Fujinokata and Tamaori withdraw to an inner room to prepare for their trip to Kyoto.
A messenger comes from the headquarters of the Heike force with a letter reporting a further Heike defeat, and ordering Tsunemori to escort the young Emperor Antoku and his mother across the Inland Sea to Yashima in Shikoku. Tsunemori hurriedly leaves the house without even bidding farewell to his family.
Fujinokata comes out of the inner room and picks up the letter from the Heike headquarters, which Tsunemori has left. Joined by Tamaori and ladies-in-waiting, Fujinokata is talking of her husband's sudden departure when Atsumori suddenly appears in the garden fully armed and on horseback. He tells his surprised mother that he will go to the Ichinotani camp to fight in place of his foster father. He says he cannot remain idle while all his relatives are in the battle. His new bride, Tamaori, volunteers to go with him to the front.
After their departure, Narita, a retainer of Hirayama, the man to whom Tamaori had been promised by her father, and his followers come to abduct Tamaori and kill Tsunemori. Fujinokata kills Narita by shooting him with an arrow and, with the help of her ladies-in-waiting, drives away his followers with halberds.
Yoshitsune, under whom Kumagai and his son Kojiro are serving, has planned an attack on the Heike camp and Kojiro, although stiii only a youth, is in the van of the attack, It is night and inside the camp some one (in fact Atsumori) is playing a flute when Kojiro appears outside the walls. While the boy pauses, listening to the music, another Genji warrior, Hirayama, appears. Hirayama tells Kojiro that they must attack the camp together but when Kojiro rushes to the gate of the camp, shouting his name, as is customary, Hirayama hangs back. Kojiro, unable to beat oft singlehanded the Heike warriors his challenge has aroused, is dragged into the enemy camp.
Kumagai enters and Hirayama pretends that Kojiro was so reckless that he would not let himself be restrained by Hirayama and consequently has been captured. Kumagai immediately rushes forward to rescue his son, but once again the cowardly Hirayama hangs back from the fighting. Kumagai reappears carrying his wounded son and tells Hirayama to fight off any pursuers so that he may get Kojiro back to their own camp. No sooner has Kumagai left than Atsumori appears and attacks Hirayama but the latter, true to form, runs away.
Hirayama flees to the beach at Suma and hides among the rocks. Tamaori, who is seeking her husband, Atsumori, enters carrying a sword. Hirayama comes out of his hiding place and seizes the opportunity of this chance meeting to pretend that Tamaori must now go with him, as her parents have agreed that they shall be married. Tamaori, however, declares that she will defy her parents and marry only Atsumori whom she loves.
Hirayama says that this devotion is useless, for he has killed Atsumori in battle. Tamaori draws her sword to revenge herself upon the lying Hirayama but is disarmed by him. Even under the threat of death she refuses to submit to him and Hirayama in a rage mortally wounds her. The sounds of fighting are coming nearer and Hirayama hides the dying Tamaori among the rocks and runs away.
Far out at sea appear the ships carrying the Heike force fleeing from Yoshitsune and his victorious army. Atsumori rides on his horse and plunges into the sea to make for the ships.
Before he can go far, however, Kumagai appears and calls to Atsumori to turn and fight, which he does. Atsumori is thrown from his horse by Kumagai who himself dismounts to give the final blow. Before he does so he asks Atsumori if he has any last request. The youth proudly declares himself to be Atsumori, son of Tsunemori, and asks only that his body be returned to his father.
Kumagai, taking pity on his young opponent, advises him to escape as no one else is around. Just at this moment Genji troops enter in pursuit of Heike stragglers. Hirayama, emboldened, comes out of hiding and, seeing Kumagai's hesitation, scornfully tells him that it is treachery to spare the life of an enemy. The proud youth begs Kumagai to kill him and with great reluctance Kumagai steels himself and severs Atsumori's head. Holding the head aloft, he proclaims to all the death of Atsumori at his hands.
Tamaori hears his cry and in anguish crawls toward the body. Kumagai lets her touch the head. Her eyes, already blind with grief, close in death as she calls the name of her love.
(Kumagai's hesitation in killing Atsumori is explained by the fact that, obeying General Yoshitsune's secret order to save the life of Atsumori, Kumagai carried from the Heike camp not Kojiro but Atsumori and took that youth to a place of safety. Kojiro disguised himself in the distinctive armor of Atsumori and deliberately allowed himself to be killed to enable his father to comply with Yoshitsune's request. No hint of this is given in the scenes of Jimmon and Kumiuchi so that the dramatic shock will be all the greater when it is revealed later. In fact, the story is so well known to the audience that the dreadful conflict in the heart of Kumagai is fully understood and deeply felt from the very beginning.)
Hayashi, who was formerly the nurse to Kikunomae, daughter of Shunzei, now lives in a small house at Ubara in the Province of Tsu.
A warrior visits this house to ask for a night's lodging, Hayashi complies with his request and immediately recognizes him as Tadanori, a Heike warrior who has presented his poem to Shunzei, asking him to include it in the Senzaishu. Soon after Tadanori has retired into an inner room a thief breaks into the house. Hayashi catches him and finds to her surprise that he is her long-lost son, Tagohei.
Asked why he broke into the house, Tagohei says he tried to steal his deceased father's sword because he wanted to earn his living as a soldier. Hayashi refuses to give him the sword but he tries to take it by force. In the midst of their struggle Mojibei, an employment agent, comes to the house to tell Tagohei that he wants to recommend him as a standard bearer.
Hayashi says she does not want her son to be exposed to danger on the battlefield but Mojibei assures her that his job involves no danger at all. Tagohei puts on armor and a helmet brought by Mojibei and jubilantly proceeds to the battlefront. While Hayashi is treating Mojibei to sake in the storeroom as a token of her gratitude, Kikunomae arrives to seek Tadanori, whom she loves. Hayashi tells her that Tadanori is fortunately staying in the house and takes her to the room where he is asleep.
Mojibei comes out of the storeroom and, after thanking Hayashi for her treat, goes home. Kikunomae then runs out of the inner room and tells Hayashi that Tadanori told her to part with him. Tadanori follows her out of the room and tells Kikunomae that he has no hope of returning alive from the coming battle and therefore wants her to marry somebody else.
Before Tadanori can succeed in persuading Kikunomae to give him up, a group of Genji soldiers headed by Kajiwara arrives to capture him. Though heavily outnumbered, Tadanori valiantly fights them off.
Then another group of soldiers headed by Rokuyata arrives. Rokuyata tells Tadanori that he has come to inform him of Yoshitsune's decision to include his poem in the Senzaishu. Glad of the great honor, Tadanori offers himself to be arrested by Rokuyata, but Rokuyata proposes to meet him openly in the forthcoming battle.
A handsome young man visits the house of Midaroku, a stonemason at Mikage (now in the eastern part of Kobe) late at night. As Midaroku is absent, the youth is received by his pretended daughter Koyuki, who is actually the daughter of Shigemori, son of the Heike Clan's chief, Kiyomori. She fell in love with the young man when he visited Midaroku previously to ask him to erect a gravestone to the memory of Atsumori.
Oiwa, a maidservant, shows the youth into an inner room, asking him to wait until Midaroku returns home. Aware that Koyuki is in love with the youth, Oiwa urges her to enter the room to entertain him. Koyuki enters the room but soon comes out because she cannot find him there. At this moment the youth surprises her by appearing from another room. When she tries to approach him he says he cannot become intimate with her and asks her to forget him.
Presently Midaroku comes back and takes the youth to the place where he has erected the gravestone.
Supposedly accompanied by the young man, Midaroku arrives at the Wakigahama beach at dawn to show him the gravestone. As he begins giving finishing touches to the gravestone, several farmers come to surround him. When he tells them that the young man ordered the gravestone standing beside him the farmers are all dumbfounded, as they can see nobody. Midaroku, too, realizes that the youth has mysteriously disappeared.
Koyuki arrives to look for the youth. Hearing the farmers speak ill of him, she insists that he is far from wicked and, ag a proof, shows Midaroku and the farmers a gorgeously-decorated flute which the youth has given her as a memento.
Fujinokata, Atsumori's mother, happens to pass by on her way to Ichinotani. Noticing the flute held by Koyuki, she says it is Atsumori's. She learns from the farmers that Kumagai killed Atsumori in the battle at Suma beach. All are puzzled and are inclined to believe that the young man who ordered the gravestone must be Atsumori's ghost.
Genji troops come to arrest Fujinokata but Midaroku contrives to lead them astray. Another group of Genji warriors headed by Umpei comes to claim Fujinokata but the farmers beat Umpei to death with spades and plough blades. Magosaku, the village headman, arrives to tell the farmers that Chuta, a retainer of Kajiwara, is so angry at this murder that he is about to arrest all of them. The farmers claim that they did not kill him but that he fainted and died. Magosaku inspects the body and is convinced that the farmers' claim is true, as there is no wound on it.
Magosaku suggests that one of the farmers go to report to Chuta that Umpei died by accident. Since nobody wants to go, however, he decides to choose a messenger by drawing lots. As a result of this the task falls upon Magosaku.
Sagami, Kumagai's wife, arrives at his camp in his absence, seeking news of their son, Kojiro. While she is talking with Gunji, Kumagai's retainer, Fujinokata arrives helter-skelter to escape from her pursuers. The two women recognize each other.
Sixteen years ago Sagami was a servant to Fujinokata, who time Sagami fell in love with Kumagai, a warrior of the Genji Clan. When it became apparent that she was to bear a child and that her illicit love would be discovered by the Court, Sagami faced death or, at the very least, exile. It was then that Fujinokata helped her and Kumagai to escape to a place of safety. In due course a son was born to them and named Kojiro. Soon after this Fujinokata herself gave birth to a son, the child of her lover, the Retired Emperor, and named him Atsumori.
Now meeting Sagami for the first time in 16 years, Fujinokata explains to her that she has come to the camp to seek revenge, for she has learned that Kumagai has slain her son Atsumori. She demands that Sagami repay her debt of 16 years ago by helping her to kill Atsumori's murderer. Sagami is torn between loyalty to Fujinokata and love for the husband, but eventually temporizes by saying she will ask her husband on his return whether he has in fact killed Atsumori.
Noticing the approach of Kajiwara, a Genji warrior, the two women retire to an inner room. Kajiwara calls Midaroku, the stonemason who is also visiting the camp, and asks him who ordered the gravestone he has just completed. Midaroku answers that a young man whom he now believes to be Atsumori’s ghost ordered the gravestone. Unsatisfied with this answer, Kajiwara takes Mm to an inner room for further questioning.
Sick with the shock of the murder of his own son in the guise of Atsumori, Kumagai returns with heavy heart to his camp from a visit to "Atsumori's" grave.
Unexpectedly finding his wife in the camp, he asks her tersely why she has come to the camp in defiance of his order never to write to him, let alone visit him, until the campaign ends. Sagami apologetically tells him that her grave concern over their son Kojiro, who is engaged in his first battle, has compelled her to disobey him.
Kumagai cannot bring himself to tell Sagami what he has done and instead describes, as though he were still alive, Kojiro's valor and daring on the field. He tells also of the death of Atsumori.
This last is overheard by Fujinokata. Desperate for revenge for her son, she leaps at Kumagai but he halts her and makes her listen as he tells her of the heroism of Atsumori. Broken with grief at the telling, Fujinokata renounces all thought of revenge.
Kumagai goes to an inner room to fetch "Atsumori's" head for presentation to Yoshitsune. Fujinokata plays Atsumori's flute, which she has obtained from Koyuki, in a prayer for the repose of his soul. Suddenly Atsumori's shadow appears on the paper sliding door. His mother rushes to fling it open but finds nothing but Atsumori's armor. Kumagai appears with a casket supposedly containing Atsumori's head. Fujinokata entreats Kumagai to show her what is inside, but he declares he cannot show it to anyone before it is offered to Yoshitsune for inspection.
At this moment Yoshitsune unexpectedly appears from an inner room. He says he has secretly slipped into Kumagai's camp in order to find out the motive behind Kumagai's request for permission to retire from military service in the middle of the war. Yoshitsune demands to see the head of Atsumori as proof that the order to slaughter the leaders of the Heike has been carried out.
In reply Kumagai shows Yoshitsune a wooden notice board that he had received before and which he had taken as an order to sacrifice his own son, Kojiro, in place of Atsumori. He then opens the casket and displays to Yoshitsune the head within-the head of Kojiro. Yoshitsune scrutinizes the head before him. After a tense silence he declares it to be that of Atsumori.
Kajiwara sees through this attempted deception and threatens to expose Yoshitsune to his elder brother, Yoritomo, head of the Genji Clan. Before he can do more he is killed by a chisel flung by Midaroku, the stone mason. Yoshitsune recognizes Midaroku as Munekiyo, a Heike clansman sympathetic with the Genji. He entrusts Munekiyo with a chest built to contain armor but hiding the real Atsumori instead. Munekiyo is given the task of smuggling Atsumori back to safety and, as well, to Koyuki, the pretended daughter of Munekiyo, to whom Atsumori had earlier given his flute as a pledge of his love.
The call to battle is heard in the distance and Yoshitsune calls on Kumagai to leave with him to join the fighting. Kumagai's answer is to remove his helmet and armor and to reveal himself clothed as a priest. In his sickness of heart he has resolved to spend the rest of his years in prayer for the soul of the son he has killed.
Because of his exploit of killing the Heike warrior Tadanori in the Battle of Ichinotani the Genji warrior Rokuyata has been given a greater territory by his lord. He now lives in a resplendent mansion at Matsubara in Kyoto with his second wife Suganoi, their young daughter Nadeshiko, his daughter Hatsushimo by his first wife, and Tadanori's lover Kikunomae, whom he took into custody after Tadanori's death.
While maidservants are gossiping about Hatsushimo's imminent marriage to the Genji warrior Chichibu, and the sorry plight of Kikunomae, who has lost her sweetheart, Hatsushimo enters with Kikunomae. To beguile the sorrow of Kikunomae, Hatsushimo and the maids play with her the game of One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets.
Tota, one of Rokuyata's two chief retainers, comes in to tell the maids to get to work instead of playing. Hatsushimo and the maids go away but Kikunomae is asked by Tota to stay. Tota bluntly asks why Kikunomae does not bear a grudge against Rokuyata, who killed her sweetheart, and suspects that she has shamelessly become intimate with him.
Provoked by Tata’s groundless accusation, Kikunomae takes out her dagger to attack him. Tota catches her arm, apologizes to her, and goes away.
Suganoi enters with her young daughter Nadeshiko and tells Kikunomae that Suganoi is tire daughter of Kikunomae's nurse Hayashi, and that Tota is Suganoi's elder brother, who was formerly known as Tagohei.
Tota helped Rokuyata kill Tadanori by cutting oft his right arm. It is in appreciation of this exploit that Tota has been given a very high position in the Rokuyata household.
Kikunomae asks for Suganoi's permission to visit the Kiyomizu Temple to offer prayers, since this day happens to be the death anniversary of Tadanori. Suganoi grants her wish and makes Hatsushimo accompany her.
Soon after their departure Hirayama arrives as Yoshitsune's messenger to bring Rokuyata's letter to his two chief retainers, Tota and Taro. Both Tota and Taro are absent but Hirayama says that he cannot wait until their return because the letter is urgent. Suganoi and Taro's wife Umenoto, therefore, read the letter in place of the two chief retainers.
In the letter Rokuyata says that he was ordered by Yoshitsune to kill Kikunomae and deliver her severed head to Hirayama. Suganoi, however, finds in the letterbox a white chrysanthemum flower which she takes as a symbol of Rokuyata's secret instruction to save the life of Kikunomae by using a substitute.
Suganoi promises to Hirayama to obey Yoshitsune's order but asks Mm to wait until dawn. Hirayama agrees and goes to an inn to take rest, leaving a head casket behind.
Suganoi then confides to Umenoto that she is going to substitute Hatsushimo for Kikunomae. Umenoto vehemently opposes this cruel idea but Suganoi, heedless of her opposition, rushes out, carrying the head casket in her arm. Umenoto, who is intent on killing Kikunomae, also rushes out of the house to look for her. She is, however, stopped by Suganoi on the Sannenzaka slope of the Kiyomizu Temple. Tota, who has come to help Suganoi, ties Umenoto to a tree with a rope and goes away with Suganoi to locate Hatsushimo.
Taro, who has heard of Suganoi's outrageous attempt, arrives but before he can release Umenoto, Tota comes back with the head casket in his arm, declaring that Hatsushimo’s head is in it. Taro attacks Tota with a sword and wounds him.
In the midst of their struggle Hatsushimo unexpectedly enters with Kikunomae. The surprised Taro stops fighting and throws off his sword. Tota shows him the content of the casket--the head of Suganoi, who has offered herself to save the lives of Kikunomae and Hatsushimo.
Impressed with Suganoi's noble sacrifice, Taro tries to disembowel himself to follow her to the other world but is dissuaded by Rokuyata, who has made his appearance from behind trees. Rokuyata orders Taro to take the pretended head of Kikunomae to Hirayama's quarters. Tota dies of his wound.
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