A Monk (waki) and his Companions (waki-tsure) are travelling from Awa-no-Kiyosumi (present-day southern Chiba prefecture) to the Kai region (Yamanashi Prefecture) when they reach the Isawa river. They ask a Local Man (ai-kyōgen) for lodging for the night, but he suggests that they stay at a cabin by the river where mysterious lights are reported to be seen at night. The monks follow the Local Man’s advice and set camp at the cabin. As night night falls, an Old Man on a boat (shite in the first act) approaches, holding a torch. He is an “ukai” fisherman, using cormorants on a leash to catch fish. He laments the sufferings he endured, killing animals for a living. As the Monk talks to the Old Man, one of the other monks realizes that a few years earlier a cormorant fisherman gave him shelter and fed him he was visiting this area. The Old Man reveals that that fisherman has passed and recounts his last moments.
Despite the prohibition against taking life in the Isawa river, every night he would go out fishing with his cormorants. Angered by his evil deeds, one night a group of villagers caught him, wrapped him a straw mat and threw him in the river, where he drowned. The Old Man reveals to be the ghost of that fisherman. Repenting his deeds he lights the torches hanging from his boat and demonstrates how he used to fish with his cormorants. Soon the fires die out, and the Old Man disappears in the darkness.
The Local Man reappears and, after retelling the story of the fisherman, recommends that the Monks pray for him. The Monk writes sacred words from the Lotus Sutra on stones and throws them into the water. As the Monks are praying, a Demon (shite in the second act) emerges from hell and reveals that thanks to the recitation of the Sutra the fisherman could be released from hell and go to paradise. Finally, he praises the Monks’ prayers and their pilgrimage across the provinces, spreading the teachings of Buddhism, and helping all beings to reach salvation.
This play extols the power of the Buddhist teachings, in particular of the Lotus Sutra, which are able to save even those who, in order to survive, are forced to sin. The figure of the Monk may be inspired by the monk Nichiren, a historical figure who was born in present-day Chiba prefecture, and was fervently devoted to the Lotus Sutra.
Despite being in hell, the ghost of the fisherman enjoys demonstrating how he fishes with cormorants, a practice that is considered a spectacle in various parts of Japan today. The actor uses the fan and the hand-held property representing the torch to imitate fishing.
The highlight of the second act is appearance of the Demon who saved the fisherman from hell. His appearance reminds Enma, King of Hell, protector of the Buddhist Law, extolling the virtue of the Lotus Sutra. The solemn presence, powerful chant, and vigorous movements are special features of this character.
Ukai is an ancient play, probably written by Enami no Saemongorō, and later revised by Zeami.
A note to the reader.
Noh performers can be divided into the following roles: shite (main actor) waki (supporting actor) hayashi (instrumentalist), and kyogen (comic actor). Such roles are further subdivided into stylistic schools, each of which preserve discrete performance traditions as well as scripts. Different styles create a wide range of possible combinations, creating unique productions for each play. In this guide, we provide explanations for some of the most frequently performed stage productions. These notes are based on the ‘Kanze-ryū Taiseiban Utaibon’ (Kanze School of Shite Actors collection of scripts).