Fujiwara Moronaga, a renowned biwa (Japanese lute) player, and his companions decide to embark on a journey to China to enhance their skills with the instrument. Before setting out on this voyage, they make a stop at Suma Bay in the Tsu Province (Kobe today). There, they encounter an elderly couple collecting sea brine while admiring the beauty of the landscape. As the elderly couple makes their way back to their dwelling, Moronaga's companions request lodging for the night. The couple rejoices upon learning of Moronaga's renowned biwa skills and warmly welcomes the party into their hut.
Once Moronaga begins to play, rain suddenly falls, its sound resembling the notes of the biwa. The elderly couple covers the hut's roof with a straw mat, which softens the rain's intensity and harmonizes its sound with Moronaga's music. Soon Moronaga realizes that the elderly couple are not ordinary humans and invites them to perform the biwa and koto (Japanese zither). Their performance is truly extraordinary, leaving Moronaga astonished to have found such talent within Japan's borders. Overwhelmed by embarrassment, he decides to leave the hut.
However, the elderly couple stops Moronaga and reveals to be the ghosts of Emperor Murakami, who was the owner of the prized biwa called Genjō, and his consort Nashitsubo. They have manifested here to dissuade Moronaga from continuing his journey to China. With these words, they disappear.
A servant from Moronaga's retinue then appears and recounts the unfolding events. Suddenly, the ghostly figure of Emperor Murakami materializes in his true form and orders that the famous biwa called Shishimaru be presented by a dragon god. Emerging from the Dragon Palace at the depths of the sea, the dragon deity offers Shishimaru to Moronaga.
Moronaga begins to play Shishimaru, and the ghost of Emperor Murakami dances to its beautiful melody. Soon, he boards his flying cart pulled by horses and vanishes, while Moronaga can return to Kyoto, satisfied by this extraordinary encounter.
The legendary biwa called Genjō has various stories associated with it, some of which involve the character of Moronaga. In the Genpei Jōsuiki, a chronicle depicting the Genpei War (1180-1185) there is a legend that when Moronaga was exiled to the western provinces, Genjō transformed into a young boy and followed him. Although the exact source material for the nō play Genjō is not certain, the combination of the character of Moronaga and Genjō is intriguing.
The theme of defining Japan's cultural and national identity in relation to China appears in several nō plays. While there is clear acknowledgment of China's significant cultural influence on Japan, there is also a strong desire to maintain Japan's own unique culture. Genjō is an example of this dual perspective.
The highlights of the first half include the scene where a couple praises the beautiful scenery of Suma Bay at twilight and recites the names of famous bays from various regions. The couple also imitates gathering brine from the sea. Another highlight is the biwa performance scene, where the actor spreads a fan to represent the biwa and performs the act of playing. In some performance variants, a stage property representing a biwa is used. The chant portion “barari karari karari barari” representing the sound of the biwa pick and the koto's string is also memorable. The audience can imagine the sound of the biwa resonating with the raindrops hitting the roof, creating a unique harmony.
In the second half, visual elements are added. The ghost of Emperor Murakami appears riding a flying carriage pulled by eight horses. In this play the Emperor Murakami appears as a deity who has the ability of summoning a dragon god. The scene in which the dragon god presents Moronaga with the biwa is also a highlight. The emperor dances the hayamai fast-paced dance. In the kutsurogi performance variant the emperor moves to the hashigakari bridgeway during the dance, as the rhythm changes pace.
Note: In schools other than the Kanze school this play is known as Kenjō.