A priest (waki) and his fellow priests (wakitsure) on their way to visit the western provinces take a boat down Yodo River and arrive at the village of Eguchi. At a historical site associated with the Lady of Eguchi, the priest recites a waka poem written by Saigyō saying that, although it is difficult to renounce this world, a person miserly about providing a temporary dwelling for the night must indeed be attached to worldly things. Then, a woman (mae shite) appears. She tells the priest to recall a poem by the Lady of Eguchi that responds to the one the priest recited. The Lady of Eguchi had responded with a poem saying that, it is unfitting for a man who has renounced the world, to feel attached to worldly things such as a night’s lodging. It was a poem telling Saigyō to renounce attachments to this world. Eventually the woman disappears after revealing that she is the ghost of the Lady of Eguchi.
That night, when the priests begin giving a memorial service, on the moonlit river appears a boat carrying the ghost of the Lady of Eguchi (nochi shite) and the ghosts of other courtesans (tsure). They are having a fancy boat party and singing a shanty as they row. The Lady of Eguchi laments her life as a courtesan and eventually performs a quiet dance as she describes the transience of this world and the sinfulness of humans. Saying that there is no longer hardship or sadness once one renounces the world, she turns into the great Fugen Bosatsu (bodhisattva of rationale and mercy, Samantabhadra) and disappears into the western sky with the boat that has transformed into a white elephant.
Eguchi draws on texts such as the Shinkokinwakashū, which includes a poem in which a courtesan denies lodging to Saigyō and instead lectures on the way of the Buddha, and texts such as Senjūshō, which includes an anecdote in which a courtesan appears in the form of Fugen Bosatsu before a priest. The play is believed to have been originally written by Kan’ami and subsequently reworked by his son Zeami.
A keyword in this play is “temporary dwelling.” In the poem that Saigyo wrote, this means a night’s lodging, but it also refers to the transience of this world. The latter meaning is made especially clear at the end of the play when the Lady of Eguchi says this world is a temporary dwelling. All things in this world are temporary. They are always changing and impermanent. Yet transience is the condition for such worldly things to appear beautiful.
The play ends with a courtesan becoming a bodhisattva. This may seem contradictory, given the perception of prostitutes as people who are contemptable rather than respectable. Yet prostitutes in medieval Japan also had a sacred role of connecting with the gods through dance and song. Furthermore, it may have been the circumstances of being a prostitute that brought some to realize the transience of human life and attain Buddhist enlightenment.
A scene of such an awakening is the highlight of Eguchi, and it takes place in the second half of the play. In a part called kuse, the Lady of Eguchi describes the transience of this world, along with her sorrows and the suffering of human life, with beautiful words starting with “a spring day dawning with pink flowers, a mountain adorned with red brocade.” The kuse is followed by a calm and beautiful dance called jo no mai. Please enjoy the graceful dance of the Lady of Eguchi who has realized the fragility of this world and has been freed from the suffering of life.
In accordance with the kogaki (special direction) called kan no kakari, this performance includes a variation on the way the flute is played during the jo no mai.