On an early spring day, a Travelling Monk and his Companions are travelling to the Capital (Kyoto) when they stop by the village of Ikuta in the Settsu Province (today Hyōgo prefecture). There they meet two women gathering fresh herbs. The Monk asks about Motomezuka, the “sought-for grave” which he heard should be in this area, but the women do not seem to know much about it. It is time for the women to go home, but one of them stays. Surprised, the Monk asks again about the Motomezuka. This time the Woman takes him to the place and tells him its story.
Long ago, two men, Sasada Onoko and Chinu no Masurao, courted a woman, Unai Otome. Undecided between the two, she told them she would marry the one who would shoot a mandarin duck on the Ikuta River. However, both men shot the duck at the same time. At her wits’ end, the Woman threw herself in the river and died. The “sought-for grave” is where the body of the woman was buried. Desperate, the two men also took each other’s life in front of the grave. After telling this tragic story, the woman disappears in the grave.
A Local Man appears and talks with the Monk, urging him to pray for the soul of Unai Otome. As the Monk recites a prayer, the Ghost of Unai Otome appears and laments how she is suffering in hell. The souls of the two Men keep chasing her in hell, where monstrous metal birds and other demons torment her. At times she holds on to a wooden pillar, which turns into a column fire, scorching her body. After telling her sufferings in hell, the Ghost returns to her grave, leaving no trace behind.
This play is based on the legend of the “sought-for grave” told in the classical literary works “Manyōshū” and “Yamato Monogatari.” The highlight of the play is the woman’s narration and re-enactment of her sufferings in hell. The Woman did not mean to trifle with her two suitors, neither did she fall in love with both. It seems that the fact that she was admired by two men is what was considered sinful. The highlight of the first half of the play is the scene in which the two Women gather fresh herbs. Their chant describes a field on a clear early spring day, where the cold of winter still lingers. In the second half of the performance, this idyllic scenery is replaced by the gruesome description of the torments she suffers in hell. In the first half, the grave memorializes a girl who has gone through terrible hardship, but in the second half, it becomes a symbol of hell. In particular, the scene where she clings to a pillar on fire in hell is depicted realistically. These portrayals are thought to have been influenced by "jigoku-e" (pictures of hell), which became popular in the late Heian period. In the second half, the “ryō no onna” or “yase onna” masks are often used. The ghastly suffering of the Woman in hell is even strongly expressed through the mask.