A Ferryman (waki) transporting passengers across the Sumida River, flowing between the Musashi and Shimousa provinces (Tokyo), is waiting for a Traveler (waki-tsure) before leaving the dock. There appears a distraught Woman (shite) who claims to have travelled from the Capital (Kyoto), looking for her lost son. She requests to board the boat, but the Ferryman replies that he will let her only if she entertains him. The woman sings, quoting “Miyako Birds” (“Birds from the Capital”), a famous poem by Ariwara no Narihira from the Tales of Ise collection, and convinces the Ferryman to let her onboard.
As they approach the coast, the Woman notices on the other side of the river a number of people gathering around a willow tree and asks the Ferryman about them. He explains that they are preparing a Buddhist memorial service called “dainenbutsu”. They will offer prayers for the salvation of the soul of a child who, after being abducted by slave-traders, died in that spot, and is now buried under that tree. The Woman soon realizes that the boy buried there was her child, Umewakamaru, and collapses in tears.
As night falls, the memorial service begins. The boat has now reached the opposite riverbank, and the Woman joins in. Suddenly the voice of a child is heard coming from the burial mound, and the Ghost of Umewakamaru (kokata) appears. At once incredulous and ecstatic at the sight of her beloved child, the Woman tries to embrace Umewakamaru, but as she reaches out for him, he slips through her body, before disappearing inside his grave. As the sun rises over the Eastern horizon, nothing is left but wild grasses growing on the mound.
Sumidagawa belongs to a group of plays called “monogurui nō”, or “madness plays”. The word “kurui” (madness), does not refer to a clinical condition, but rather to a person experiencing a heightened emotional state. In medieval Japan little distinction was felt between the irrational behavior of a distraught person and the skills displayed by performers. Among the numerous noh plays featuring mad men or women as protagonists, Sumidagawa is considered one of the finest.
In Sumidagawa, the Woman performs in order to convince the Ferryman to let her board the boat. She performs a poem from the “Azuma kudari” episode from the Tales of Ise. The poem recites “If you are what your name implies / let me ask you, / Capital-bird, / does all go well / with my beloved?” (Trans. Helen McCullough in Tales of Ise. Stanford U.P., 1968). In the episode, the poet Ariwara no Narihira, travelling to the Sumida River, hears a ferryman calling “all aboard!”, as he sees a flock of Miyako Birds (literally birds from the Capital), reminding him of the city where he left his lover. Narihira asks the Miyako Birds if they could tell him whether his lover lives or has died. Inspired by this literary reference, the Woman in the play Sumidagawa thinks the white birds flying over the Sumida River are not seagulls, but Capital Birds, and asks them to bring her news of her son.
The play reaches its climax when the Ghost of Umewakamaru, the Woman’s lost child, appears. In the noh repertoire plays featuring lost children usually end with a happy reunion of parent and child. Sumidagawa’s tragic ending is the only exception. After a long search, the mother discovers that her child is dead, and his ghost appears in front of her eyes. The scene in which the mother tries to embrace the ghost of her son, who slips through her body before returning to his grave is one of the highlights of the play. The poignant story of a mother who never gave up searching for her son, and the tragic fate that brought them back together, though only for a moment, makes this play one of the most heart-rending of the noh repertoire.
In certain performance variants, the Ghost of the Child does not appear on stage. This is the result of a recent interpretation of the play, based on an episode told by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) in his treatise Tales on Sarugaku. The author of this play is Kanze Motomasa (1394-1401), Zeami’s son, designed as his first heir. Zeami advised Motomasa not to have the Ghost appear, but Motomasa decided otherwise. This debate between father and son later became famous, and sparked debate among noh specialists, undecided between the two interpretations. Each version yields different results: even if today the most frequently performed version is the one featuring the Ghost, performers still debate whether it would be better to show the Ghost as a character, or only let the audience hear his voice, or discard the character altogether.