Togashi (waki), the warden of the Ataka Barrier in Kaga Province (Ishikawa Pref.), orders his retainer (ai) to guard the barrier station. The barrier was set up in order to capture Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who is suspected to be traveling disguised as a mountain hermit. Yoshitsune had fallen out with his brother, the Shogun Yoritomo, and was known to be fleeing toward Hiraizumi in Ōshu Province (Iwate Pref.). Yoshitsune (ko-kata), Musashibō Benkei (shite) and Yoshitsune's retainers arrive in front of the barrier of Ataka. In order to conceal Yoshitsune's identity, Benkei dresses him up as the group's mountain porter and sends the real porter (ai) to scout the barrier station.
As Benkei and his men are about to go through, Togashi orders them to stop. Benkei claims that they are a group of hermit-monks soliciting donations for their temple. However, Togashi threatens that he shall kill any mountain hermit that dares pass. Benkei takes out his praying beads to conduct his last Buddhist service and prays fervently. Togashi orders him to read out loud the prospectus for donations. Benkei takes out a blank scroll of paper and improvises, pretending to read the prospectus. Convinced by his determination, the barrier guards allow the group to pass. However, Togashi notices Yoshitsune and stops them again.
Deliberately blaming Yoshitsune for the delay, Benkei takes out his stick and starts beating him. Yoshitsune's retainers also get upset with Togashi and Benkei desperately tries to restrain them. At long last, Togashi relents and grants them safe passage. The group goes through the barrier undisturbed.
Further down the road, Benkei apologises to his master for beating him and both lament their sad lot. Suddenly, Togashi appears together with his retainer, carrying a bottle of rice wine as a token of apology for his rudeness. At the improvised banquet, Benkei performs a dance while urging the retainers to be vigilant. Eventually the group continues their journey.
In "Ataka", one of the leading themes is Benkei's ability to calmly resolve dangerous situations thanks to his wit and quick mind. This is a Noh play with many highlights and scenes that change in rapid succession. One of the highlights of the play is the mountain hermit's prayer. The scene emphasises the mountain ascetics' spiritual strength. Another highlight is the reading of the prospectus. Pretending to be reading the scroll, Benkei improvises the story of the founding of Tōdai Temple. The rhythm and melody of this part of the libretto are very complex and the techniques for mastering them are kept a secret. The hayashi musicians also make the chant stand out through well-timed pauses. The third highlight is the scene where Yoshitsune is being reproached for the delay.
Although the historical figure of Yoshitsune was an adult warrior, in Noh his role is performed by a child actor (ko-kata). The more pitiful Yoshitsune's situation, the more Benkei's role as his protector stands out. The face-off, full of ardor and acted out by numerous actors, is another point of interest. The scene where Yoshitsune laments his sad lot has an extremely emotional libretto worth closely listening to. Benevolently comforting each other, Yoshitsune's men are depicted as a group bound by solidarity. The climax of the play is considered to be Benkei's dance. In "Ataka", Benkei is portrayed as a monk who is skilled in the performing arts. His dance is full of vigour and grace.
In "Ataka" there are many special directions, or ‘ko-gaki’. In the ko-gaki called "Ennen no mai", Benkei can be seen performing a special dance in which he jumps in sync with the musicians' shouts. There are other directions, such as "Shaku-gakari" in which Benkei dances while pouring wine to Togashi, or "Taki-nagashi" in which he acts out his gazing at a mountain waterfall.
The play "Ataka" has greatly influenced Japanese culture over the centuries. The Kabuki play "Kanjincho" and the Akira Kurosawa movie "The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail" are both based upon it.