Written by Kippei Namioka, Itcho Asada and Akei Yasuda, this play was first staged at the Toyotakeza Theatre in 1751 but was revised in 1806 by Baishiken Chikamatsu and Tota Sagawa. It is the revised version that is now usually performed.
On his visit to the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Prince Usugumo, elder brother of Emperor Toba, tells Inubuchi, one of his retainers, that he is planning a rebellion in order to replace his younger brother as Emperor.
After the prince and his party have gone to visit the chief abbot's chamber, Katsura, daughter of the late Michiharu, Minister of the Right, arrives with her maids and happens to meet Unemenosuke, younger brother of Yasunari, chief of the astrological office. Katsura, who loves Unemenosuke, takes advantage of this chance encounter to ask him to marry her. Before the can get his consent Inubuchi intrudes to demand that Katsura accept Prince Usugumo's love. He is, however, repelled by Unemenosuke, who helps Katsura escape.
When Hatsuhana, Katsura's younger sister, is playing the koto in her house, Katsura comes rushing and embraces her, for she has taken Hatsuhana for Unemenosuke in a daydream. Soon noticing her mistake, Katsura feels ashamed. Hatsuhana tenderly advises her to take care not to let her love sickness spoil her health.
At this moment Unemenosuke visits the house, having been called by the sisters' mother, Haginokata. When left alone with Katsura before meeting Haginokata, Unemenosuke tells Katsura to give him up and comply with Prince Usugumo's persistent request for her hand. Katsura protests but reluctantly leaves him as the sound of her mother's approach is heard.
Haginokata asks Unemenosuke to recover for her a precious sword named Shishio that has been stolen from her house. Unemenosuke promises her to do his best and, when informed of the visit of a messenger from Prince Usugumo, enters an inner room.
The messenger, whose name is Kintoji, arrogantly tells Haginokata to present the sword Shishio or Katsura's severed head to Prince Usugumo. In the absence of the sword the only way to comply with the prince's demand is to behead Katsura. But Haginokata desperately appeals to Kintoji to spare Katsura because she is not her real daughter but an adopted daughter. She explains that she found Katsura as an infant abandoned in the compound of a Shinto shrine near the Kiyomizu Temple. As she cannot agree to sacrifice Katsura, whom she considers a godsend, she proposes to offer Hatsuhana, her real daughter, as her substitute. Kintoji at first refuses but later agrees to Haginokata's compromise offer to sacrifice either Katsura or Hatsuhana, choosing the scapegoat by a game of backgammon.
Hatsuhana, who is kind-hearted, deliberately loses the game so that Katsura can be saved. But Kintoji beheads Katsura instead of Hatsuhana. Angry at his breach of promise, Haginokata confronts him with a halberd. Unemenosuke rushes out of the inner room to help her and fatally slashes him with a sword. Before he breathes his last, Kintoji reveals that he is in fact Katsura's father and that he has stolen the Shishio sword by Prince Usugumo's order.
Shigeyuki, a court noble, visits the house to convey the Emperor's command to make Hatsuhana a lady-in-waiting. With Haginokata's ready consent, Hatsuhana prepares for her new job by wearing a gorgeous court dress brought by Shigeyuki.
There is a development not acted out on the stage that has to be borne in mind in order to understand what transpires in this scene.
As we saw in the last part of the preceding scene, Hatsuhana was to enter the Imperial court as a lady-in-waiting. Before she can do so, however, an old fox with golden fur and nine tails kills her, and assuming the form of Hatsuhana, is employed as a lady-in-waiting named Lady Tamamo.
Lady Tamamo soon becomes the Emperor's favorite mistress. One night she is proceeding to the Emperor's bedchamber when she is accosted by Prince Usugumo who confides to her his plan to dethrone and exile the Emperor. He asks for her support and promises that if he succeeds in winning the throne he will make her the Empress. Lady Tamamo reveals her true identity to him and promises to help him with her supernatural power.
The Empress and three mistresses of the Emperor, Ayame, Katsuragi and Chitose, who are all estranged by the Emperor, conspire to assassinate Lady Tamamo, who is monopolizing the Emperor's love. They lie in wait on the long corridor leading to the Seiryo Hall where the Emperor is holding a feast.
Suddenly a gust of wind blows out all the lights in the palace. Taking advantage of the darkness the would-be assassins approach Lady Tamamo as she walks along the corridor but their attempt is foiled as the emits light from all over her body.
The Emperor is confined to bed and Prince Usugumo is taking charge of the affairs of state in his place. He is, however, so captivated by the beauty of his mistress Kamegiku that he is quite negligent of his duty. When Kamegiku tells the prince that she is not fully convinced of his faithfulness to her, the prince delivers to her, as evidence of his true love the Sacred Mirror, one of the three Imperial Regalia, which he has secretly secured in an attempt to usurp the throne. He also lets her take his place as a judge presiding over two trials, one about a frozen loan and the other about a broken love affair.
Kamegiku now presides over a third trial in which the plaintiff is Yasunari, chief of the astrological office, and the defendant, Lady Tamamo. Yasunari accuses Lady Tamamo of her evil influence that has allegedly caused the Emperor's illness. Lady Tamamo successfully refutes the charge. Kamegiku endorses her statement.
Yasunari then asks Lady Tamamo to assist him in his prayer for the Emperor's recovery from illness. With Lady Tamamo giving her consent, the two proceed to an inner room.
When Kamegiku is left alone, Unemenosuke enters and receives from her the Sacred Mirror, without which Prince Usugumo can hardly claim the throne. Prince Usugumo, however, catches Kamegiku red-handed and kills her on the spot.
Meanwhile, in the inner room Yasunari begins offering his prayer. In fact he is using the prayer as a means of discovering the true identity of Lady Tamamo. When he unsheathes and wields the Shishio sword, which has a magic power, Lady Tamamo is compelled to admit that she is really an old fox. Resuming its animal form, the fox flies away, pursued by Yasunari.
On its way to its original habitat, the fox with golden fur and nine tails assumes different forms including a masseur, a country girl, the god of thunder, a man in a livery coat, a street girl, a courtesan, and Lady Tamamo.
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