A group of Monks from the Western provinces are visiting Akogi Bay in Ise (present-day Mie prefecture). There they meet an old man who laments the life of fishermen like him, taking lives for a living. As the Monk and the Fisherman take turns reciting poems related to Akogi Bay, the Monk is surprised to see that the fisherman is so well-versed in poetry. Upon being asked about local customs of Akogi Bay, the Fisherman replies that in this area fishing is prohibited: only fish that will be offered at the nearby Ise Shrines can be caught. However, one fisherman called Akogi ignored the prohibition. However, he was caught and killed. Finally, the Fisherman reveals to be the Ghost of Akogi and asks the Monk to release him from the torments he suffers in hell. Suddenly a strong wind blows, and the waves grow taller. The Fisherman disappears into the darkness of the sea. A Local Man appears and relates the story of Akogi Bay. He urges the Monk to dedicate prayers for the salvation of the Ghost of Akogi. As the Monk begins the ritual, the Ghost of Akogi appears. He re-enacts secret fishing. Then, he describes the torments he is suffering in hell because of what he did in his previous life. In hell, the fish he killed have transformed in poisonous monsters, while the net he used turned into flames that catch and burn him. Finally, the Ghost begs the Monk to help him reach salvation, before disappearing in the depths of the sea.
The Japanese middle-ages were deeply influenced by the Buddhist worldview, according to which killing any living creature is a sin. That of the fisherman and of the hunter were thought to be sinful professions, and those who practiced them were thought to be doomed to suffer in hell after death. In the play “Akogi” the protagonist appears to be stuck between the needs of his profession and Buddhist ethics. The complexity of his problem is exemplified by the fact that, at the end of the play, he fails to reach enlightenment. Since ancient times fish caught at Akogi Bay is used as sacred offering at the Grand Shrine of Ise. As a consequence, common fishermen are forbidden to fish there. There are poems mentioning the punishments imposed on those fishermen who violated this rule. One story mentions Satō Norikiyo (the secular name of the famous monk-poet Saigyō) falling in love with a noblewoman. The woman is said to have composed a poem: “At Akogi Bay in the Ise Sea, if the nets are drawn too many times, someone will surely know it”, suggesting that one’s hidden misdeeds soon or later will come to light. It is said that Norikiyo took tonsure after receiving this letter. The play Akogi is loosely based on this story.
The highlight of the first half is are the narrations of the story related to Akogi, and of the torments suffered by fishermen in hell. The scene in which the Fisherman prepares his net, despite the prohibition, is particularly impressive. The highlight of the second half is the re-enactment of the forbidden fishing and the sufferings of the Fisherman in hell.