An Imperial Officer receives an order from the Emperor that one thousand rolls of silk (“makiginu”) be offered to the Kumano Shrine. While silk is being delivered from all over the country, there is still no sign of the silk bearer from the Capital (today Kyoto). The Officer waits for him impatiently.
A Man from the Capital is carrying a roll of silk. He travels across mountains and valleys, until he reaches the Kumano region. On his way, he stops to pray at the Otonashi Tenjin shrine. There, he notices that a plum tree is blossoming. Moved by the subtle fragrance of the flowers, he offers a poem to the deity of the shrine. Because he stopped on his way, the Man is late when he reaches the Kumano shrine. Irritated by the delay, the Officer declares that he wants to discipline him, and orders a Servant to tie him up.
Suddenly, a Shrine Priestess appears. She claims that the Man arrived late because he stopped to worship at the Otonashi Tenjin shrine, where he offered a poem to the deity, so he should be released. The Officer doubts that a lowly person would be capable of such noble gesture and orders the Man to recite the poem he offered in order to prove that the story is true. The Man promptly replies: “Plum flowers, you blossomed without a sound”, and the Priestess continues “were it not for your scent, who would have noticed?”. The Man is immediately released, and the Priestess extols the virtue of poetry as a means for gods, buddhas and men to communicate with each other. Then, the Priestess offers a ritual dance to the deities of Kumano. During the ritual, the Priestess is possessed, and the dance becomes increasingly agitated. Finally, she throws behind her the plum branch she was holding her, a sign that the gods have left her body.
The background to the story of “Makiginu” is Kumano in the province of Kii (Wakayama pref.), a mountain area comprising of three shintō shrines corresponding to three mountains: Hongū Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Kumano has been a site of pilgrimage for mountain ascetics since ancient times. In this sacred area shintō beliefs in the forces of nature overlap and intertwine with Buddhism. Toward the end of the play, the text explains how each of the shintō shrines in the Kumano complex is associated with a Buddhist deity.
The dominant theme of the play is poetry as a means to soothe the pains of humans and gods alike. The deity of Otonashi shrine is Tenjin, the deification of Sugawara no Michizane (805-903), a Heian period scholar worshipped as the God of scholarship. Michizane is traditionally associated with the plum tree. In the Kamakura period (1185-1333) folk narrative “Shaseki-shū”, it is told of a man who offered a prayer at Otonashi shrine. Moved by the gesture, Emperor Go-saga rewarded him with a tax exemption. Thanks to poetry, the man was saved from economic downfall. Quoting various sources, the play Makiginu introduces several stories related to the miraculous power of poetry.
The of main highlight of the play is the “kagura” dance of the Priestess. Though it begins slowly, the rhythm and movements get faster as the Priestess becomes possessed by the deities. In the end, she throws the plum branch behind her, symbolizing that the gods have left her body.