A Monk from Mt. Kōya and his Companions are on their way to Kyoto when they meet an Old Woman who is begging while sitting on a stupa (a monument in the shape of a Buddhist reliquary. Stupas are commonly used to pray for the dead). For the Monk, sitting on a stupa is an offense. He urges the Woman to get off it. An argument ensues, and the Woman outwits the Monk, demonstrating that Buddha’s compassion is deeper than such superficialities. The Monks are impressed by the Woman’s deep understanding of Buddhism. When asked for her name, she declares to be “the mere shadow of Ono no Komachi”.
Ono no Komachi is a Heian period poet, famous for her literary skills as well as for her beauty. Komachi laments how her beauty has faded with age. As she brings back memories of her radiant youth, she seems to become increasingly distraught. The spirit of her ancient lover, Fukakusa no Shōshō, has possessed her. Long ago, Komachi told Fukakusa that she would accept his courtship if he visited her house for one hundred nights. However, on the ninety-ninth night, Fukakusa died. His resentful spirit still torments Komachi today. Possessed by him, she reenacts Fukakusa’s one hundred night-visit.
Finally, Fukakusa sprit leaves Komachi’s body. Saying that humans cannot but pray for Buddhist salvation after that, she reinstates the promise to abide by the teachings of Buddha.
“Sotoba Komachi” (“Komachi on the Stupa”) is based on the character of Ono no Komachi (c. 825 - c. 900), the celebrated Heian Period poet. It is thought that the play was written by Kan’ami, and then edited by his son Zeami. Together with “Sekidera Komachi”, “Higaki”, “Ubasute”, and “Ōmu Komachi”, it is one of the five plays featuring an Old Woman as the protagonist. These plays are considered particularly difficult and are treated with utmost care by noh practitioners.
Komachi is the only woman among the “Six Immortals”, a selection of poets who are considered as the pinnacle of classical poetry. Though Komachi was known for her unequalled beauty, in this play she appears as an old beggar, aged 100. She identifies herself as the “mere shadow of Ono no Komachi”. Audiences in the middle ages were familiar with this depiction of Komachi, as it appeared in numerous other literary works. The contrast between these two extreme aspects of Komachi, from splendor to decrepitude, urges us reflect on human existence.
The highlight of the first half is the debate between Komachi and the Monk, and their display of knowledge and wisdom. The highlight of the second half is the reenactment of the “one-hundred-night courtship” by Komachi, possessed by the spirit of Fukakusa. The same story appears in another play, “Kayoi Komachi”. Komachi bears the karma of Fukakusa’s resentment, caused by her cruel attitude toward him.