The Heian-period poet Ki no Tsurayuki and his companions are on their way to visit the god of poetry at Tamatsushima Shrine in the Kii province (today Wakayama pref.). As the party is crossing the Izumi province (today Osaka pref.) the sky suddenly grows dark, and torrential rain begins to fall. Tsurayuki’s horse collapses. There, an old Shrine Priest appears, holding an umbrella and a torch. The Priest explains that his horse collapsed because he defiled the sacred territory of the Aridōshi Shrine by crossing it while riding on a horse. Tsurayuki for the first time realizes that, in the darkness, he unwillingly entered the shrine precincts. He regrets his carelessness has offended the gods. The Priest understands that Tsurayuki is a poet, so he urges him to offer a prayer to the deity as an apology. Tsurayuki recites the poem “In the dark and cloudy night, who would see the stars?” The Priest praises this composition and extols the virtues of poetry. Suddenly, Tsurayuki’s horse revives and neighs, a sign of the deity’s pardon.
After Tsurayuki’s request, the Priest performs a purification ritual to appease the deity. He reveals that the deity of Aridōshi Shrine understood Tsurayuki’s pure heart and dedication to the way of poetry, hence he appeared in the form of an old priest to help him. Saying so, he disappears. Tsurayuki rejoices and, as dawn breaks, he sets off to Tamatsushima.
“Aridōshi” is a play attributed to Zeami Motokiyo, extolling the virtue of poetry as a way to appease the deities. The main character appears in the form of an old priest guarding the shrine, but at the end of the play, the text hints at how he may have been the deity of Aridōshi in disguise. While in other nō plays with a similar plot the deity would reappear in its original form, in this play the main character just leaves, leaving the audience to question his identity. Was he just a priest? Was he a deity?
Ki no Tsurayuki, also appearing in the play, was one of the Heian period aristocrats who were included in the imperial anthology “Kokin wakashū.” He certainly would be a suitable character to appease the heart of a deity. In this play, the secondary character (Tsurayuki) is more active than in a typical nō play. For example, he performs movements such as hearing a bell tolling in the darkness or pulling the reins of the collapsed horse. These mimetic movements are easy to understand.
On the other hand, the movements of the main character (the Old Priest) are sparse and solemn, suggesting that he is a deity in disguise. His appearance, holding an umbrella and torch are characteristic of this play. In his comments on the art of nō (Sarugaku dangi), Zeami mentioned the importance of using the torch and umbrella, which the actor uses to express walking in the dark, rainy night.