The story is set at the time of the 12th century conflict between the Minamoto and Taira clans. Awazu-no-Saburō (waki), retainer of Captain Taira no Kiyotsune, is on his way back to the capital after the Taira were defeated at Yanagi-ga-ura, in the Buzen province (present-day Kitakyushu). He is carrying with him a keepsake for his lord’s Wife: a lock of hair that Kiyotsune left before committing suicide. Saburō visits the Wife, who learns about Kiyotsune’s death. Shocked, she can barely stand the sight of her husband’s hair, and orders that the keepsake be sent back to the Usa Hachiman Shrine in Kyushu. Crying in despair, she falls asleep.
In dream, the ghost of Kiyotsune (shite) appears. The Wife reproaches him of having selfishly taking his life, thus breaking the promise that bound them as a married couple. He, in turn, blames her for having refused to accept the keepsake he left her. Blaming each other, they shed tears of resentment. In order to explain his extreme act, Kiyotsune narrates his last days at Yanagi-ga-ura. Pressed by their enemies, the Taira were escaping to sea. Even the Usa Hachiman oracle told them lose all hopes, as both gods and Buddhas had already abandoned the clan. Realizing that their days were counted, Kiyotsune decided to put an end to his suffering in a dignified way: rather than being caught by the enemy, he would take his own life. Before dawn, while the moon was still high, he stood on the bow of his boat, played his flute, and recited ancient verses. Then, with a last prayer to Buddha Amida, he jumped into the water.
After telling this story, Kiyotsune re-enacts his suffering in the Ashura (the warrior’s hell) where he is condemned to fight endless battles. However, thanks to Amida’s mercy, he can finally be released from hell and reach enlightenment.
‘Kiyotsune’ was written by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1442), who perfected the art of noh. It belongs to the Warrior Noh category, in which most of the plays are about warriors who, after being defeated in battle, suffer in the Ashura. While the story of Kiyotsune appears in the 8th Chapter of the famous warrior chronicle, the ‘Tale of the Heike’, his wife is mentioned only in some alternative versions of the tale.
Among the highlights of the play is the entrance of Kiyotsune while the Wife is asleep. This is particularly interesting in the performance variants ‘koi-no-netori’ or ‘hikō-no-netori’ in which Kiyotsune does not enter while the chorus chants, but is accompanied by a special flute melody that emphasizes the dream-like atmosphere of this scene.
The dialogue between Kiyotsune and the Wife is interesting because, despite the tragedy of the narrative, it reminds of a domestic quarrel between husband and wife. Kiyotsune explains that he had reasons for deciding to commit suicide, while the Wife cannot forgive the fact that, by killing himself, he left her alone. Despite mutual affection, they cannot understand each other.
In the second act, Kiyotsune enacts his last days in the ‘kuse’ narrative dance. The latter part of the dance is faster, expressing Kiyotsune’s resoluteness in jumping from the boat. Finally, he shows his torment in hell, fighting against ghost hordes of enemies.