This play is set in the late 12 century, when the war between the Genji and the Heike clans had already ended and the new Kamakura era was just starting.
A man (waki) serving under the great Buddhist teacher Hōnen has arrived at Kamigamo Shrine (located in Kita District, Kyoto) together with a young boy (kokata) who has recently become a Buddhist monk.
The priest Hōnen is looking after the boy, but in fact he is the child of the Heike general Atsumori, who died during the war. The boy prays to the deities to let him see his father, even if it were only in a dream.
The deity of Kamigamo Shrine sends the boy a divine dream which instructs him to go to Ikuta Forest (in present day Kōbe City, Hyōgo Prefecture). The man and Atsumori's child immediately make for Ikuta Forest and arrive there the same evening.
They go toward a light in the woods, and discover a handsome warrior dressed in full armour waiting for them. They realise that he is the ghost of Atsumori (shite). As it turns out, the deity of Kamigamo related the child's prayer to the god of death Enma and he allowed Atsumori's ghost to return to the world of the living for just one night. Having his prayer fulfilled, the boy cries tears of joy.
Atsumori's ghost tells the story of the rise and fall of the Heike clan, and, overjoyed with the reunion, performs a dance.
However, their happiness is short-lived. Enma, the god of death, sends his messenger to take back Atsumori's soul. In front of the boy's eyes are revealed the horrors of the Shura-dō, the warrior's hell with its rain of flames and blades and never-ending battles. Asking his son to pray for his salvation, he ghost of Atsumori finally disappears.
As a historical figure Atsumori is widely known. The chapter "Atsumori's Death" from the classical narrative "The Tale of the Heike" is present in every school textbook throughout Japan. He was well known for beautifully playing the flute and for being slain in battle at the young age of sixteen.
The Noh play "Atsumori" approaches that story directly, but "Ikuta Atsumori" depicts the Heike general from a different perspective. The fact that Atsumori had a child can neither be seen in "The Tale of the Heike", nor can it be confirmed by any of the extant historical documents.
However, throughout the ages, the story that Atsumori's child was reunited with his father's ghost became popular with the masses. There are books describing this story dating back to the Warring States Period (mid 15-16 C).
The play "Ikuta Atsumori" was created in the beginning of 16 C, during the Warring States Period, but it was before generals such as Takeda Shingen and Oda Nobunaga were born. The play is rooted in this period's popular stories about Atsumori's child.
Many of the play's elements are based on some Noh plays existing at the time, so comparing it to them is another way to appreciate its beauty.
The play "Ikuta Atsumori" has two main elements - on the one hand is the reunion between parent and child with displays of love only a father can feel for his son, and on the other are the numerous tortures a warrior is bound to go through in hell. A major highlight of the play is the balance at which both elements are performed.
A distinguishing feature of this play is that it takes some time until the shite actor enters the stage and until then, the child actor plays the role of a main character. Observe the admirable presence of the child yearning to meet his father.