A Travelling Monk is on his way to the Eastern Provinces when he stops by the Yatsuhashi Moor in Mikawa (Aichi Pref.), famous for its purple water irises (kakitsubata). There he meets a woman who tells him that this is where the courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira composed his famous poem “In these familiar lovely robes I’m reminded of the beloved wife I have left behind, stretching far – Sadness, the hem of journeys”. The Woman offers the Monk lodging for the night and shows him Narihira’s courtier hat and a robe which he left as a keepsake for Takako (Fujiwara Takaiko, Narihira’s lover, who would later become Emperor Seiwa’s consort). Surprised to see these items, the Monk asks the Woman to declare her identity. The Woman reveals to be the Spirit of the Water Iris, while Narihira a Bodhisattva of Chant and Dance.
The Spirit of the Water Iris talks about Narihira’s romantic adventures revealing that, in reality, Narihira secretly acted as a matchmaking deity. The Spirit of the Water Iris dances, then she praises the unity of animate and inanimate beings, all of which are capable to achieve Buddhahood. As dawn breaks, she disappears.
The play “Kakitsubata” was inspired by the 9th section of the literature classic “Tales of Ise,” entitled “Departing for the East” which contains Ariwara no Narihira’s famous poem “In these familiar lovely robes I’m reminded of the beloved wife I have left behind, stretching far – Sadness, the hem of journeys”. The first syllable of each verse of the poem used the five syllables of the word for water iris, “ka-ki-tsu-ba-ta.” The protagonist of the “Tales of Ise” is unnamed, but he is generally believed to be Narihira himself, and the tales may be his diary. In a commentary to the Tales, Narihira is described as a Bodhisattva of Chant and Dance, but also as a matchmaking deity. It is thought that this latter interpretation of Narihira was part of a secret commentary. These various interpretations of the character of Narihira were generally shared by the audience of this play in the Japanese Middle Ages.
The highlight of the play is the “jo no mai” slow tempo dance to instrumental music, performed in the second half. This is the most elegant and refined type of dance in the nō repertory. The Spirit of the Water Iris appears in a unique outfit: although she is a female character, she wears Narihira’s male robe and courtier hat. This combination of male and female elements symbolizes Narihira’s role as a matchmaking deity.
The performance variant “shirabayashi” features a shorter dance to instrumental music, while in the variants “koi no mai” and “sawabe no mai” the main character moves to the bridgeway and looks out as if she were admiring the irises in the pond.