Written by Hanji Chikamatsu and his assistants, this play was first staged at the Takemotoza Theatre in 1771.
In a pine grove near the Kasuga Shrine in Nara a handsome young government official, Koganosuke, sits on a stool to rest after a bird hunting with his blowpipe.
Soon a noble-looking girl named Hinadori arrives, accompanied by maidservants Kogiku and Kikyo. She falls in love with Koganosuke at first sight. As she is too shy to speak her mind openly, however, the maidservants borrow Koganosuke's blowpipe and let her use it to whisper into Koganosuke's ear.
Gemba, a retainer of Emishi, a high government official plotting to overthrow the Imperial government, detects their subsequent necking. Gemba, who is eager to marry Hinadori against her will, says that he will report Koganosuke's tryst to the government so as to have him punished for his "improper" conduct.
Pretending to appease him, Kogiku offers the blowpipe to him and advises him to hear Hinadori’s words of love through it. When he applies it to his ear, however, Kogiku blows an arrow into his ear. Taking advantage of his consternation, Hinadori and her maidservants flee. Presently a messenger comes from the Imperial Palace to inform Koganosuke that Lady-in-Waiting Uneme has run away. Hearing of this, Gemba hurries back to his office with the messenger.
Koganosuke, now left alone, accidentally meets Uneme on her fugitive journey. Uneme tells him in tears that Emishi has falsely accused her father Kamatari, Emishi's rival in the government, and has succeeded in causing him to be exiled. Therefore, she says, she has deserted the Imperial Palace without permission to look for her father. Although Koganosuke is Uneme's ward and is therefore duty-bound to take her back to the Imperial Palace, he disguises her with his hunting suit and lets her escape.
Emishi calls Koganosuke to his gorgeous mansion to ask him whether the report is true that Uneme drowned herself in Sarusawa Pond. Koganosuke falsely replies that the tragedy did in fact happen and he, as a guard for the lady, was held Witty of negligence and subsequently disowned by his father Daihanji, a military officer loyal to the Emperor.
Koganosuke tells Emishi also falsely that he wishes to be employed by Emishi. Emishi, who is planning a rebellion, demands that not only Koganosuke but also his father Daihanji serve him instead of the Emperor. Koganosuke refuses to comply and takes his leave.
Medo, wife of Emishi's son Iruka, enters and reveals that her husband is about to become a Buddhist priest. Asked by Emishi for the reason for Iruka's decision, she replies that he opposed to Emishi's plan for rebellion. Angered at this opposition, Emishi kills her.
Yukinushi, Medo's father, arrives as an Imperial messenger, accompanied by Daihanji, and accuses Emishi of fomenting rebellion. Faced with discovery, Emishi commits seppuku. As Yukinushi is about to depart he is shot to death by an arrow. The murderer is none other than Iruka, who is in reality as rebellious as his father.
Iruka then asks Daihanji whether he will serve him. When Daihanji falsely agrees to do so, Iruka changes his Buddhist robe to a splendid ceremonial dress and triumphantly proceeds toward the Imperial Palace to demand that the Emperor transfer the Imperial treasures to him.
Standing by Sarusawa Pond, the Emperor, who is blind, mourns the death of Uneme with whom he was in love. Tankai, Uneme's brother, appears and is commended by the Emperor for his loyalty. At this moment a messenger comes to report to Tankai that Iruka has broken into the Imperial Palace in revolt. Tankai leads the Emperor away in the Imperial carriage to protect him from harm during the rebel attack.
Shibaroku, a hunter, accompanied by his son Sansaku, kills a black-hoofed female deer in the dark on a hill where deer hunting is prohibited. Shibaroku, who in fact is a retainer of Tankai, has poached the deer because it is believed that the blood taken from a black-hoofed female deer has a magic power to kill Iruka.
Shibaroku and Sansaku return to their home where the Emperor is taking refuge together with Tankai.
Due to the expenses necessitated by the Emperor's stay Shibaroku finds it difficult to make both ends meet. When a rice dealer comes to collect the payment due to him Okiji, Shibaroku's wife, tells him that her husband is absent. The rice dealer tries to take advantage of the husband's absence to rape her but Shibaroku suddenly appears from an inner room and declares that the rice dealer, by reason of his criminal intent, is now liable to a fine that is larger than the sum Shibaroku owes him. The rice dealer runs away.
Taking advantage of the Emperor's blindness, Shibaroku, his wife Okiji and Tankai make the Emperor believe that Shibaroku's rickety house is the Imperial Palace itself. The unsuspecting Emperor asks them to have the court musicians perform. As it is out of the question for them to prepare the proper court music, Shibaroku and his son recite manzai (comical ballad) to amuse the Emperor.
After the Emperor's retirement for the night, Shibaroku tells Tankai that he has caught a black-hoofed female deer and has taken blood from its body.
A messenger from the village headman visits the house to inform that the Kofukuji Temple, which supervises the deer in Nara, is looking for the deer killer, offering a prize for a prospective informant about him.
Sansaku asks his younger brother Sugimatsu to go to the Kofukuji Temple to deliver his letter. Unknown to Sugimatsu, the letter informs the temple in the name of Sugimatsu that Sansaku killed the deer.
Soon after Sugimatsu's departure, agents of the usurper Iruka come to the house seeking to arrest the Emperor and Tankai. Taking Sansaku as hostage, they threaten to kill him if Shibaroku does not reveal the truth and obey their order to surrender the Emperor and Tankai.
Shibaroku goes out of the house with them, promising to confess everything at the village headman's office. Having overheard the conversation, Tankai plans to escape with the Emperor but Okiji assures him that her husband will never reveal the truth. When an official in charge of deer protection arrives from the Kofukuji Temple with Sugimatsu as his guide, Sansaku offers himself to the official. Sansaku is to be buried alive for his crime of deer killing.
Shibaroku comes back from the village headman's office and kills his own son Sugimatsu as proof that he will never reveal the secret even if he has to sacrifice his own son. The following morning Kamatari visits the house, accompanied by his daughter Uneme, who in fact did not kill herself as was supposed. Kamatari tells Shibaroku that he has saved Sansaku from death by digging him out of the earth in which he had been buried alive. Sugimatsu's body is to be buried in his place.
Imoyama and Seyama hills, which are separated by the Yoshino River in Yamato Province, are respectively the estates of Hinadori's mother, Sadaka, and Koganosuke's father, Daihanji, who have been in territorial dispute. In the Seyama mansion Koganosuke lives in confinement. The official reason for his confinement is the punishment he has merited for his failure to prevent Uneme from drowning herself (although as apparent from the previous scene, Uneme in reality did not drown herself).
Actually his father has imprisoned him in this remote mansion in order to protect him from Iruka, who now realizes that Uneme is not dead and is angry with Koganosuke on the assumption that Koganosuke helped Uneme to hide herself.
On the other side of the Yoshino River in the Imoyama mansion there lives Hinadori, who is in love with Koganosuke. Koganosuke wishes to marry her but Iruka also desires Hinadori. Her widowed mother Sadaka has so far saved her from his clutches by making the excuse that he is ill.
The curtain rises on the scene of Sadaka's mansion to which Daihanji has been called by Iruka's order. Iruka visits the mansion and tells Sadaka and Daihanji that they must reveal where Uneme is. When both deny any knowledge of her whereabouts, Iruka demands that Koganosuke take service as his retainer and that Hinadori become his concubine.
Daihanji and Sadaka are to convey these commands to their son and daughter, respectively. If Koganosuke consents the father promises to throw a branch of flowering cherry flowers into the river and if he refuses, a dead branch. The same signals are to be made by the mother for the girl.
When Daihanji informs Koganosuke of Iruka's command in his Seyama mansion, Koganosuke without hesitation declares that in no circumstances will he take service with such a corrupt lord, Death being the only alternative to refusal, Koganosuke nobly commits seppuku. Before he dies he asks his father to fling a flowering branch of cherry into the river so that Hinadori may not be grieved by the knowledge of his death.
In the Imoyama mansion Hinadori also prefers death to submission to Iruka's desire but begs her mother to throw into the river a flowering branch of cherry after her death so that Koganosuke may not grieve at knowing she has died. Sadaka then cuts off her daughter's head. The two branches of blossoming cherry float together down the river.
The parents open the doors and discover what has happened in each other's mansion. They vow to end their feud. Sadaka sends the head of Hinadori together with her trousseau across the river to the Seyama mansion in a sad wedding ceremony of the dead lovers.
In front of the Sugisakaya sake shop at Miwa in the suburbs of Nara, an annual well cleaning is being held with several neighbors working to help the proprietress of the sake shop. The cleaning having been completed, the proprietress offers sake to helpers including Dozaemon, Yahei, Gosubei and Toroku.
In the midst of the feast beside the well, Motome, a noble-looking headgear maker, who has recently moved into the house next to the sake shop, passes by and enters the house after briefly apologizing for not taking part in the well-cleaning.
Mogibei, the landlord, appears and joins in the feast, When the party ends he calls the sake shop proprietress for a secret talk about her new neighbor and leads her away.
In the gathering dusk Netaro, a boy employee of the sake shop, lights the lamp at the entrance of the shop and sees a woman covering her head with a white silk cloth enter Motome's house. When Omiwa, the daughter of his mistress, comes back from the village school, Netaro informs her that Motome is meeting a woman in his house.
Omiwa, who is in love with Motome, becomes uneasy and asks Netaro to bring Motome to her. When Motome arrives Omiwa accuses him of his unfaithfulness. Motome tells her quite falsely that his guest is in the service of the Kasuga Shrine and that she has come to order a headgear for her priest husband.
Omiwa feels relieved at this explanation and hands a spool of red thread to him. The spool, together with a spool of white thread kept by Omiwa, symbolizes their firm pledge of love.
The woman left alone in Motome's house is actually Tachibana, Iruka's younger sister, who also loves Motome. Getting impatient, Tachibana comes to the sake shop and the two women light, each claiming the possession of Motome's love.
Omiwa's mother returns home and, finding Motome in the house, bids him stay because she has business with him. The mischievous Netaro ties her obi to the tap of a huge sake cask with a rope. So, when she moves to catch hold of Motome, the tap gets loose, causing a gush of sake from the cask. In the confusion, Motome runs out of the house, accompanied by the two women who love him.
The reason why Omiwa's mother wished to catch hold of Motome is because she has been informed by the landlord that Motome is actually Tankai, Kamatari's son, and that a big sum of money will be given one who gives help for the arrest of Tankai by Iruka's agents.
Tachibana hurries her way to Iruka's mansion. Motome overtakes her on the road. While they are talking, Omiwa arrives. After fighting for some time with the jealous Omiwa, Tachibana leaves. In order not to lose her in his pursuit, Motome attaches a red thread to her sleeve and follows her with the spool in his hand. Omiwa likewise attaches a white thread to Motome's sleeve.
As background information for understanding this and the following scenes, it has to be remembered that Iruka was born, according to the story, by supernatural means. His father, Emishi, being childless, has caused his wife to conceive by giving her the warm blood of a white stag to drink. The child born as a result of this strange means was Iruka. Consequently, in order to defeat Iruka, it is necessary to discover the magic that would counteract the magic of Iruka's being.
Kamatari learns that a portion of blood taken from a black-hoofed female deer, mixed with the blood of a woman killed at the height of jealous passion, must be poured into a certain flute. The music of a flute so treated will cause Iruka to fall into a stupor.
Shibaroku, one of Kamatari's retainers in disguise, has already obtained the blood of a black-hoofed female deer. Fukashichi, another retainer, is now hot after the blood of a jealous woman.
The curtain rises on the magnificent mansion newly built by Iruka in the likeness of an Imperial palace. Celebrating its completion, Iruka is holding a feast.
A messenger from Kamatari, who calls himself fisherman Fukashichi, brings a gift of sake and a letter of congratulation. Iruka, suspecting that the sake may be poisoned, does not take it, so Fukashichi drinks it all and lies on the raised floor when all others have gone. Two spears pierce the floor to attack but miss him. Then several ladies-in-waiting appear to offer sake. He does not drink it and gets rid of the women as soon as he can. He secretly pours out the sake on chrysanthemum flowers in the garden. The flowers immediately shrivel up to prove that the sake is poisoned. Some of Iruka's followers arrive with bows and arrows and take him into an inner room.
Tachibana comes back from her night visit to Motome. Ladies-in-waiting who greet her notice the red thread attached to her sleeve. When they pull the thread Motome appears with the spool. The ladies-in-waiting quickly under- stand the situation and scurry oft to leave the lovers alone.
Motome and Tachibana reveal that they know each other's identity, which each has sought to hide from the other. Motome realizes he must kill her if he is to preserve the secret of his identity. Tachibana, knowing the hopelessness of their love, asks Motome to kill her. Seeing this sign of her true love, Motome spares her and asks her to obtain for him the Imperial sword called Totsuka that Iruka has appropriated for himself and hidden away. He promises to marry her if she succeeds. Tachibana agrees and the lovers part.
Omiwa arrives carrying her spool of white thread that has broken on the way. The ladies-in-waiting of Tachibana surround the girl and discover she is searching for her lover. Spitefully amused, the ladies tell her there is to be a secret marriage of their mistress and a handsome stranger that very night. Omiwa immediately concludes that it is her own lover who is to be married and is sick with jealous despair.
The ladies-in-waiting take advantage of Omiwa's distress and confusion to pretend to teach her the etiquette proper to life in the gorgeous mansion in which she finds herself, Humiliated and lovesick, Omiwa stumbles through the lessons while looking constantly for the arrival of Motome to rescue her. At length, tired of their sport, the ladies beat Omiwa and run oft, laughing derisively.
Omiwa hears from inside the palace voices raised in congratulation and consumed with jealousy that this may mean that her lover has now married another woman, she runs to the door only to be confronted with Fukashichi who slashes at her with his sword. Poor Omiwa falls mortally wounded as Fukashichi explains that now the may serve "Motome," who is really Tankai, in death as she never could in life. Her blood, the blood of a supremely jealous woman, is what he must have to kill the tyrant Iruka as he has sworn to do. As Omiwa dies, clutching the white thread, Fukashichi catches her blood in his flute.
Tankai shoots an arrow from the garden at Iruka in the banquet hall, but Iruka quickly catches it and calls to his retainers to arrest the enemy. Gemba and Yatoji come out to fight Tankai.
At this moment the sound of a flute is heard, making Iruka fall into a state of coma. Kamatari arrives with his retainer Taro, who appeared in an earlier scene with the assumed name of Shibaroku. Kamatari, Tankai, Taro and Goro, who has so far been disguising himself as fisherman Fukashichi, cooperate to assassinate Iruka. The treasured sword of Totsuka also comes into Kamatari's possession.
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