The fisherman Hakuryō (waki) is contemplating the peaceful scenery of Mio Bay (present-day Shizuoka prefecture) with other Fishermen (waki-tsure) when notices a gorgeous robe hanging from the branch of a pine. He decides to bring it home and keep it as a treasure.
Suddenly a voice calls out to him, and a Celestial Maiden (shite) appears, claiming that the robe is hers, and lamenting that without it she cannot return to her home in the heavens. Hakuryō says that if she showed him one of the dances for which celestial beings like her are legendary, he would return it to her. The Maiden replies that without her robe she cannot dance, but Hakuryō is afraid that if he returns it first, she would immediately fly away. Hearing this, the Maiden admonishes him: “doubt is for humans, in the heavens there is no deceit”. Ashamed of his suspicion, Hakuryō promptly returns the robe.
After donning the robe, the Maiden dances, describing the beautiful and mysterious world of the moon, where she resides. Finally, as a sign of gratitude, she bestows treasures on the world, before circling higher and higher in the sky, disappearing in the mists over Mt. Fuji and Mt. Ashitaka.
Uttering the words ‘doubt is for humans, in the heavens there is no deceit’ the celestial Maiden expresses the purity of the moon, from which she descended. Later in the play, the Maiden performs a narrative dance sequence, evoking the mysterious world of the moon as well as the beauty of Mio Bay. Later, she performs two dances, first the slow jo-no-mai, then the faster “ha no mai”, also symbolizing her excitement for returning home. Then, she has treasures fall from the sky, a gesture accompanied by felicitous words. In the final sequence, the main actor dances in rounds, suggesting how the Maiden circles over far-away mountain peaks, disappearing beyond the clouds.
The play is based on the legend of the “Robe of Feathers”, which has numerous regional versions in Japan. These were collected in local chronicles such as the “Tango no kuni fudoki itsubun”. A poem referring to the legend, set in Udo-no-hama (currently in the coastal area of Shizuoka City), can be found in the late Heian period (794-1185) poetry collection “Goshūi wakashū”. The central motif of the story, in which a beautiful female whose magical robe of feathers is stolen by a man while she is bathing, can be found in folk tales throughout the world.
“Hagoromo” counts numerous performance variants. In the “wagō-no-mai” variant, the latter part of the “jo no mai” slow tempo dance becomes faster, and the ha-no-mai dance as well as a portion of the chant are not performed. In the “iroe saishiki no den” variant, the regular jo-no-mai is substituted with a combination of a short dance sequence called “iroe”, and a version of the “jo no mai” called “banshiki”, in which the flute plays a higher-pitched melody. Other variations include the gestures of the waki, the costume of the shite, and the position of the robe of feather on stage.