Watarai Ietsugu, a priest at Ise Shrine, has gone missing while traveling around the various provinces of Japan.
Looking for his father, Ietsugu’s son Kōgikumaru (kokata) arrives at Mount Shirayama (present day Hakusan National Park) on the border between Kaga Province (Ishikawa Prefecture) and Mino Province (Gifu Prefecture).
He learns about a male shaman (shite) of unknown identity, living at Shirayama, who is rumoured to be able to tell one’s fortune with extreme accuracy through poems.
Guided by a local man (tsure) living at the foot of Mount Shirayama, Kōgikumaru decides to visit the shaman and ask him to divine the whereabouts of his father. Kōgikumaru notices that although the shaman is young, his hair is as white as snow.
When asked about the reason, the shaman explains that while wandering around the country, he suddenly died and came back to life three days later. During the time he was dead he caught a glimpse of hell, and because of this, his hair turned white.
First, the shaman correctly divines the plight of Kōgikumaru’s companion. Next, he tells the fortune of Kōgikumaru, but concludes that he has already found his father.
Considering this strange, the shaman asks Kōgikumaru about his place of birth and his father’s name. He is taken aback by the answer. It turns out that the shaman is none other than Watarai Ietsugu, Kōgikumaru’s long lost father. Father and child rejoice at the reunion.
The two are determined to go back to their hometown, and to commemorate the occasion, Ietsugu performs a ‘kusemai’ dance depicting the sights of hell.
As he is dancing, Ietsugu is possessed by a deity that drives him to frenzy, but then regains his sanity and together with Kōgikumaru returns to his home in Ise Province.
The Noh play “Uta-ura” describes an absurd world incomprehensible to reason. However, to the ancient Japanese, who due to warfare and natural disasters were constantly shadowed by death, the “other world” depicted in the play probably possessed a certain flavour of realness. During the “dance of hell”, there is a verse in the libretto saying “The soul is like a caged bird waiting for the door to be opened so that it can fly away”, which implicates that although death was deemed horrifying, it was also seen as a release from a life full of suffering.
The libretto during the “dance of hell”, which depicts the impermanence of human life and the tortures awaiting after death, includes many incomprehensible expressions of Chinese origin, which are forced into the Noh metre without matching the poetic rhythm. This is why the play is considered to be one of the most challenging ones for the performers. An interesting highlight can be seen in the second half of the ‘kuse-mai’ dance, where particular movements are used to depict the tortures of hell.
The libretto, sung during the deity-induced frenzy that follows, contains many words that evoke the image of whiteness, such as dew, hail, deutzia flower, summer rain, etc. When performed by a talented actor, the vivid gestures can create a breathtaking spectacle. Through his dance-frenzy verging on trance, Ietsugu manages to overcome death and return home together with his son.
This play’s author is Zeami’s son, Kanze Motomasa.
He is also known for plays such as “Sumida-gawa”, “Morihisa” and others. Motomasa died young and his father, Zeami, expressed his grief in the eulogy “Museki-isshi”.