The season is spring. A member of the Fujiwara family (waki), who lives near Gojō in the capital Kyoto, is traveling to Naniwa-zu (the ancient name of Osaka Bay) with his attendants (waki-tsure). Upon seeing the beautiful scenery of Naniwa-zu, Fujiwara recites a waka poem by Ōtomo-no-Yakamochi, a poet from the time of the poetic anthology "Manyōshū". The poem reads: "The cherry blossoms are now in full bloom, just like the reign of the Emperor in his shining palace above the sea of Naniwa". Just then, a woman from the village (shite of act one) calls out to Fujiwara, asking him why he is not reciting the original poem.
The woman tells him that the phrase "cherry blossoms" in the poem was originally "plum blossoms" and explains her reasoning. Convinced by the woman's words, Fujiwara asks her to tell him the true meaning of the poem. The woman replies that she would appear again when the moon rises, and disappears into the shadow a plum tree.
A man (ai) from the nearby village of Naniwa appears, tells Fujiwara about the origin of the plum trees in Naniwa-zu, and before leaving, advises him to wait for more miracles to happen. The day turns into a quiet night - the moon shining bright upon the bay of Naniwa. The spirit of the plum tree (shite of act two) appears.
The spirit explains that the word ‘ume’ ("plum") derives from the word ‘uma’ (meaning "fine, excellent"), and that plum trees have been used in Shinto and Buddhist rituals, as well as in various court ceremonies, since the Age of Gods. The spirit of the plum tree performs a graceful dance, and as dawn approaches, blesses the Emperor's reign with everlasting prosperity and peace.
The Noh play "Ume" was created during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The author is Kanze Motoakira (1722-1774), the 15th head of the Kanze School. Motoakira is known for publishing the "The Meiwa Era Anthology of Revised Chants" (commonly known as the Meiwa-book). "Ume" was created especially for this anthology and is included in it. In the Meiwa-book, Motoakira thoroughly revised the texts of all Kanze School Noh plays, the performance direction, costumes and notations, as well as stage sets and properties. Although there are many examples of plays being reverted to their previous style after Motoakira's death, the current staging of all Kanze school plays has been greatly influenced by these reforms.
The lyrics of "Ume" are deeply influenced by Kokugaku - the study of Japanese classical literature. Kokugaku is an academic discipline that flourished in the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868). It attempted to explain and interpret literary classics such as "Kojiki" and "Manyōshū" as products of the unique culture of Japan. According to some scholars, "Ume" reflects the theories of Tayasu Munetake (the second son of Tokugawa Yoshimune), who was a Kokugaku devotee. The highlight of the first half of the performance is the woman's interpretation of the poem, which is based on the ideas of Kokugaku.
The incarnation of the spirit of the plum tree, who changes the phrase "cherry blossom" to "plum blossom", creates an atmosphere of dignity and majesty. The second half of the performance is also greatly influenced by Kokugaku, with the spirit of the plum tree narrating the story of the origin of the word "plum" and the tree's use in sacred rituals since the Age of Gods. The libretto includes some unfamiliar words related to Kokugaku, but just before the start of the narrative dance, there is a scene where you can imagine the view of the pine trees amid the moonlit Naniwa-zu as well as the sound of the wind blowing through the reeds. Right after the dance ‘jo-no-mai’ performed by the plum spirit, there is a song that says "The fragrance of the plum blossom reaches Heaven". Please try to imagine the blooming plum tree's beautiful fragrance as expressed through the elegant ‘jo-no-mai’ dance.