The warrior Minamoto no Raikō has fallen ill. While his servant looks after him, Kochō, a lady-in-waiting comes to visit him, bringing a medicament with her. Even though Kochō has been taking care of him, Raikō does not seem to get any better.
That night, a strange-looking Monk visits Raikō’s home. All of a sudden, the Monk attacks Raikō, spitting spiderweb from his mouth. Raikō quickly draws the sword “Hizamaru and slashes the Monk, though he manages to escape.
Having heard of this accident, Hitorimusha, one of Raikō’s retainers, hurries to see him. Raikō tells him that a suspicious monk visited his house, but all of a sudden transformed itself into a two-meter tall monstrous spider. Raikō managed to wound the monster with his sword, which he renamed “Kumokiri” (Spider-Cutter). Following the blood trail the monster left, Hitorimusha sets out to chase the spider.
Hitorimusha's servant appears. He relates what just happened and explains that Hitorimusha is on his way to slain Tsuchigumo. Before long, Hitorimusha and a group of warriors surround the mound in which monster is thought to be hiding, and break in. From inside emerges Tsuchigumo, a monstrous spider. The warriors and the monster engage in a violent fight, with swords slashing a thousand spiderwebs. Finally, Hitorimusha and his men subdue Tsuchigumo.
The main highlights of the play are the confrontation between Raikō and the Monk in the first act, and the fight between the Hitorimusha and the Tsuchigumo in the second act. The paper strips used for spiderwebs thrown by the shite are a unique feature of this play.
Even though the custom of throwing the spiderwebs already existed, the narrow and long strips used today were only created in the Meiji period by a famous actor of the Kongō School. There are many representations of spiders in Japan. A famous poem goes “My love will visit me tonight. The spider’s weaving has taught me so.” This poem compares the steady work of the spider weaving its web to the bond between two lovers. It is also thought that a spider can be a premonition of someone visiting a house. These images are interwoven in the narrative of the monk in disguise visiting Raikō in the play “Tsuchigumo.”
During the Japanese middle-age representations of the monstrous spider spread and widened. In the painting scrolls “Tales of the Tsuchigumo” the story is slightly different: Raikō enters a run-down house and confronts various creatures, until he finally fights a monstrous spider. In the “Nihon Shoki,” a book collecting foundation myths and chronicles of ancient Japan, it is said that a clan called Tsuchigumo caused ruin on the Imperial house. They are depicted as “of short stature, but with long arms and legs.” After being subjugated, the Emperor spared them, and it is thought that he called them “Tsuchigumo.” Interestingly, in the second half of the play, the monstrous spider is referred to as “the spirit of Tsuchigumo,” a suggesting that the creature is the embodied spirit of the Tsuchigumo clan who lived long ago. Even though initially the narrative of the play may seem as the simple “hero slays monster” story, its background is much deeper.