A young dancer (tsure) goes by the name ‘Hyakuma Yamamba’ because of her imitation of Yamamba, the legendary ogress living in the mountains. Hyakuma’s dance has become popular in the Capital (present-day Kyoto). One day, she and her Followers (waki and waki-tsure) set off on a pilgrimage to Zenkō-ji temple in the Shinano province (Nagano prefecture). Three paths lead to the temple: the ‘high way’, the ‘low way’ and the ‘higher way’. Hyakuma decides to take the ‘higher way’, which Amida Buddha, venerated at the temple, is thought to have traversed. As the path leads the party deep into the mountains, the sky suddenly darkens. At first there seems to be no place to seek for shelter, but soon a mysterious Woman (shite in the first act) appears, offering the party lodging for the night. The Woman asks Hyakuma to demonstrate her famous dance. She then reveals to be the real Yamamba: she made the sun set earlier, and deliberately led the travelers to her house. The dancer agrees to perform, and the Woman says that, since the sky is clear, and the moon is rising, she will show them her real form. Saying so, she disappears.
The group is astounded by this unexpected encounter. A Local Man (ai-kyōgen) who accompanied the group tells various stories related to the mysterious figure of Yamamba. As the night falls, the performer begins to dance. There, Yamamba (shite in the second act) appears in the form of an eerie-looking old woman. Mentioning the Buddhist principle of non-duality of good and evil (jashō ichinyo), she explains that, in fact, the world of humans and that of Yamamba are one. Finally, Yamamba dances, describing how she helps those living in the mountains in her wandering around the valleys and peaks through the four seasons, before disappearing.
‘Yamamba’ is a complex play by Zeami Motokiyo, in which legends of Yamamba, the ogress living in deep in the mountains, interweaves with the philosophical teachings of zen Buddhism. In the play, the female entertainer known as Hyakuma Yamamba specializes in a kind of narrative song-dance called ‘kusemai’, which was particularly popular in the middle ages. The kusemai has a recognizable musical structure which Kan’ami, Zeami’s father, incorporated into his plays. The ‘kuse’ section of the play Yamamba is thought to retain features of the original kusemai genre.
One of the highlights of this play is the kuse section, which was praised by Zeami in his treatise Sarugaku Dangi. Yamamba mentions the jashō ichinyo Buddhist principle of non-duality of good and evil, according to which the world of Buddhas and that of men, earthly desires and enlightenment, humans and Yamamba, only differ in appearance, but are essentially one and the same.
In this section of the play Yamamba is described as wandering around the mountains in a metaphor of the cycle of earthly rebirths of which both men and Yamamba are part. In fact, Yamamba appears as a kind of ogress but she is also described as a spirit helping the humans living and working in the mountains. These ‘mountains’ may be interpreted as a fantastic location far from civilization, but also as a primordial landscape symbolizing the entire universe. The pure moon shining on them symbolizes the teachings of Buddha, which Yamamba preaches.