On a moon-lit autumn night, a Traveling Monk is visiting Ariwara Temple in Isonokami (Nara prefecture). Long ago, the Heian period courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira and his wife, the daughter of Ki no Aritsune, lived in this area. Feeling nostalgic, the monk decides to offer a prayer for the repose of their souls. Suddenly a Woman from a village nearby appears. She is bringing flowers and sacred water for Narihira’s tomb. Talking with the Monk, she tells about the love story between Narihira and Ki no Aritsune’s daughter. Although the two were married, Narihira had an affair with a woman in the distant village of Takayasu (Osaka prefecture). Worried about her husband walking across Mt. Tatsuta at night to visit his mistress, she composed a poem. Upon hearing it, Narihira gave up visiting the other woman. The Woman also talks about how, when the two were children, they used to play around a well until they promised each other to become husband and wife.
As her story ends, the Woman explains how Ki-no-Aritsune’s daughter came to be called the ‘Lady of the Well’. Saying so, she mysteriously disappears in the shadow of the well.
A Local Man appears and relates in simpler words the story of Narihira and his wife, suggesting that the Monk may meet the two characters in dreams. As the Monk falls asleep, the Ghost of Ki no Aritsune’s daughter appears, now wearing a male cloak and hat Narihira left her as a keepsake. The apparition dances elegantly in remembrance of the past. As her memories surface, she approaches the well and looks down, seeing herself dressed as her husband, before disappearing with the first lights of dawn.
In the performance variant called “monogi”, the actor interpreting the Village Woman stays on stage for the costume change. In this variant, the interlude featuring the Local Man is cut, and the action proceeds directly to the dance sequence.
This play is one of Zeami’s masterpieces, representative of the “dream and illusion” (mugen) style in which past and present events merge. Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) is the actor-playwright who perfected the art of Noh in the 14th century. The main source for the plot of the play is the “Tales of Ise”, a collection of poems inspired by the life and love affairs of courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880). In sections 17-23 of the book Narihira appears as protagonist and since the middle ages his lover has been identified as the daughter of Ki-no-Aritsune.
The core of the second half is the elegant “jo no mai” slow-tempo dance performed by the Ghost of Ki no Aritsune’s daughter while wearing the cloak and hat left by her lover. The climax of the performance occurs when she looks down the well and sees herself in her lover’s garb. The images of the two lovers come together as one.