During the reign of Emperor Daigo, Tomonari (waki), the chief shinto priest of Aso Shrine in Kyūshu, has embarked on a journey to the capital Kyoto, taking his fellow priests (waki-tsure) with him. Passing through Banshū province, he stops at the bay of Takasago where he sees an old man (mae-shite) and an old lady (mae-tsure) sweeping the needles under a pine tree and singing songs in praise of longevity and the beauty of the sunsets in spring. The old man says he lives in Sumiyoshi, while the old lady lives in Takasago, and though separated, the couple has grown old together exactly like the Paired Pine Trees of Sumiyoshi and Takasago.
According to them, Takasago symbolizes the ancient times when the ‘Manyōshū’ collection of poems was compiled, while Sumiyoshi symbolizes the modern age of Emperor Daigo, and they emphasize that poetry hasn't stopped flourishing throughout the ages. The old man and woman praise the pine tree and the auspiciousness of poetry. After telling Tomonari that they will wait for him at Sumiyoshi, the couple gets on a boat and sails into the open sea.
Tomonari calls a local person living in the bay of Takasago. The man tells the legend of the Paired Pines and the story of the deities of Sumiyoshi and Takasago, who are husband and wife, and in the end recommends that Tomonari should go on a pilgrimage to Sumiyoshi in a freshly built boat.
Tomonari and his men get on a boat and head towards Sumiyoshi. Upon arrival, the god Sumiyoshi Myōjin appears before them and performs a dignified dance as a blessing for the Emperor's reign.
This Noh is representative of the auspicious plays that usually revolve around the idea of a deity blessing the world. Its playwright is Zeami, and in ancient times it was also known as ‘Ai-oi’, or ‘Paired-pines’. The dignity of the pine tree is compared to the flourishing state of poetry, which in turn is a symbol of the peaceful times in Japan. The description of the pine tree glowing green under the rays of the setting sun is a means to evoke an image of everlasting peace.
The accent in the first half of the play is the scene where the old couple praises the dignity of the pine tree and the auspiciousness of poetry, while sweeping the needles and purifying the land under the tree.
The highlight in the second half of the play is the dignified dance of the deity Sumiyoshi Myōjin. The deity of Sumiyoshi is usually depicted as an old man, but in this Noh play he appears in the form of a young and vigorous man. Among the dances in Noh, this one is exceptionally energetic. Towards the end of the play the movements, corresponding to the libretto, are particularly grand and expressive.
In the play ‘Takasago’ there are auspicious songs called ‘shūgen-utai’ that are often performed at wedding ceremonies.
There are special directions, or ‘kogaki’, where the dance is longer or quicker and more energetic than usual.