Musashibō Benkei (shite in act one) has decided to go on a midnight pilgrimage to Gojō Tenjin Shrine (Shimogyō Ward, Kyoto). His servant (tomo) informs him of a rumour that a boy of 12 or 13 years of age has been attacking people with a sword in the vicinity of Gojō Bridge recently, so it would be a good idea to refrain from a pilgrimage tonight. Benkei briefly agrees, but then changes his mind and decides to go to Gojō Bridge, determined to vanquish the mysterious boy himself.
Meanwhile, a man (omo-ai) comes running over, claiming to have been injured by a boy at Gojo Bridge. A passerby (ado-ai) mocks him for his cowardice, saying that he must have encountered the notorious "Ushiwakamaru - the Slayer of a Thousand Men". The two men eventually leave, screaming that Ushiwakamaru is coming.
In the meantime, the young boy Ushiwakamaru (ko-kata) has been spending his days perfecting his skills in the martial arts. After being scolded by his mother, Tokiwa-gozen, he has promised to return to Kurama Temple the next morning. This is his last night in the city. Knowing that this would be his last chance to slay one thousand men, Ushiwakamaru, dressed in a woman's kosode kimono, awaits passers-by.
As Ushiwakamaru lies in wait, Benkei (shite in act two) appears, armed with a large naginata halberd. Ushiwakamaru kicks up the handgrip of Benkei's halberd and provokes him. The two engage in a fierce fight, but Ushiwakamaru is too agile and manages to gracefully dodge each of Benkei's attacks. Benkei finally yields before Ushiwakamaru's superhuman prowess. Having surrendered, Benkei finds out Ushiwakamaru's true identity and expresses his desire to become his servant. After solemnly pledging his allegiance to Ushiwakamaru, Benkei follows his new master home.
This play tells the story of the first encounter between the famous Ushiwakamaru (the childhood name of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune) and Benkei. There are many other plays about these two heroes in Noh - such as "Ataka" and "Funa Benkei", - but this particular one depicts the very first episode of their exploits. The chronicle "Gikeiki", as well as many other stories, depict Benkei as the one killing people every night. The Noh play reverses these roles and makes Ushiwakamaru the slayer - a fact that imbues the play with a unique flavour.
Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune was a son of Minamoto-no-Yoshitomo and Tokiwa-gozen.
After his father Yoshitomo died during the Heiji Civil War, Ushiwakamaru was sent to Mt. Kurama to become a Buddhist monk. However, Ushiwakamaru is said to have neglected his studies in Buddhism, devoting his time to martial arts instead in order to wreak vengeance upon his father's enemies. Before becoming Yoshitsune's retainer and accomplishing many heroic deeds, Benkei, whose childhood name was Oniwakamaru, lived in the West Tower of Enryaku Temple in Mt. Hiei under the Buddhist name of Musashibō. The story of how he died standing upright while protecting his master in the battle of Koromogawa is also very well-known.
The highlight of the play is the scene depicting the battle between Ushiwakamaru and Benkei. The contrast between Benkei, who wears black armour and wields a big naginata halberd, and the young boy Ushiwakamaru, who moves as light as a butterfly or a bird, is particularly fascinating. There is a refined elegance about the figure of Ushiwakamaru, moving around effortlessly, making a fool out of the adult man - an elegance that fascinates the audience again and again.
Please enjoy the wonderful story of the first encounter between Ushiwakamaru and Benkei at Gojo Bridge.