A priest from the capital and his attendant priest arrive at Yashima Bay during a journey for Buddhist training. Looking for a place to lodge for the night, they find a salter’s hut (a hut where salt is made by boiling seawater). An old fisherman (lead role in first act), apparently the owner of the hut, arrives there with a young fisherman, having finished their day’s work. Hearing that the priests came from the capital (Kyoto), the old fisherman agrees to provide lodging, saying that he has fond memories of Kyoto. Recalling that this area around Yashima was the site of a battle during the Genpei War between the Genji and Heike clans, a priest asks the old man to tell him about the event. The manner in which the old man describes the battle on the beach of Yashima is curiously detailed, as if he had been there when it happened. Noticing this, the priest asks the old man’s name. The old man gives a cryptic reply and disappears.
Right after the old man disappears, the actual owner of the salter’s hut appears and tells the priests about the battle of Yashima that took place in March of the first year of the Genryaku era (1185). He then leaves, giving the priests permission to lodge in the hut. The priest waits for the return of the old man who appeared earlier, suspecting that the old man was actually Minamoto no Yoshitsune of the Genji clan. Yoshitsune (lead role in second act) appears in the priest’s dream, clad in armor, and tells the priest how he has been unable to give up his attachment to the world of the living because of his memories of the battle in Yashima. During the battle, Yoshitsune risked his life to retrieve the bow that he had dropped. As a proud warrior, it was a matter of honor. The priest witnesses how Yoshitsune’s spirit remains in an afterlife of never-ending carnage, reliving the battle day after day, still fighting for his honor as a warrior. Yoshitsune disappears at dawn, and the priest awakens from his dream.
Yashima is located in Takamatsu city, Kagawa prefecture today. During the end of the Heian period, the Genji clan fought a series of battles in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions as they pursued their rivaling Heike clan who had fled to the Seto Inland Sea after losing previous battles. A highly gifted tactician of the Genji clan, Yoshitsune won battle after battle, finally cornering the Taira forces at Dan-no-Ura. The playYashima is based on the Battle of Yashima which took place in 1185 in the course of this pursuit (in the play’s setting, it is the previous year, the first year of the Genryaku era).
The first half of Yashima has a portrayal of combat between Mionoya no Shirō and Akushichibyōe Kagekiyo, warriors belonging to the Genji and Heike forces respectively. This includes a part that is called “Shikorobiki” (“pulling off the neck guard”), as Kagekiyo rips off the neck guard hanging from Mionoya’s helmet. The second half includes “Yuminagashi,” a scene in which Yoshitsune drops his bow and risks his life to retrieve it. The climax of the play portrays Yoshitsune fighting valiantly in a scene of battle in Asura’s world, a world of never-ending carnage.
Yoshitsune normally sits as he recounts the recovery of his bow. However, the kogaki (special version) called “Yuminagashi” and “Shirahataraki” in this script add a variety of special features to the scene. Specifically, the actor drops and pursues his fan to show how Yoshitsune lost and retrieved his bow. (The name of the kogaki is “Daiji” when both Yuminagashi and Shirahataraki are performed.) In addition, the kogaki called “Nasu” significantly modifies the interlude performance between the first and second act, giving the kyogen actor multiple characters to portray. Normally, the kyogen actor sits as he tells the story of Mionoya and Kagekiyo’s shikorobiki. However, the kogaki Nasu adds a part where the actor reproduces the scene in which the excellent marksman Nasu no Yoichi demonstrates his skills by accurately shooting a fan on a ship rocking on the waves. The storyline of Nasu forms an independent story. Nasu is therefore sometimes performed by itself, without the full noh play.