In ancient China, a young man called Rosei has been living aimlessly. Now willing to give meaning to his life, he is on his way to visit the holy sage of Flying Sheep Mountain in the Kingdom of So. On his journey, he stops by an inn at the Village of Kantan. The Innkeeper has kept a magical pillow that was given to her by a monk who once stayed there. Those who sleep on this pillow will see a miraculous dream who will awake them to enlightenment. While the Innkeeper prepares a millet meal, Rosei rests on the pillow of Kantan.
Suddenly, a Court Envoy and his retinue wake Rosei up. The King of So has decided to give his title to Rosei. The Envoy urges Rosei to get on the palanquin so that he can be taken to court. As Rosei admires the beauty of the royal palace, a Minister tells him that celebrations for the 50th anniversary of his reign will begin. Child dancers and Court Ministers join the banquet. King Rosei drinks an elixir of long life, then stands on his jeweled throne joins the dances. Inebriated by the wine and by the dances, time goes by faster and faster. Days and nights, and the four seasons turn before Rosei’s eyes. Everything disappears. Suddenly, a knock on Rosei’s door wakes him up. His millet is ready. Awakening from his dream, Rosei cannot believe that the glory of fifty years lasted only the time for millet to cook. Coming to the deep realization that life is evanescent, just a dream, Rosei leaves the inn.
In the play “Kantan” the scene moves from reality to dream, then back to reality. This change is staged in different ways. First, various stage properties are used. The “hikitateōmiya” is a platform covered in brocade and topped with a roof. This represents at the same time the inn, Rosei’s bed where the Kantan pillow is, the court palace, and the throne room. This reflects the simplicity but also the multifunctionality of nō theatre’s performance elements. Rosei’s falling asleep, awakening from the dream, but also the Envoy’s and the innkeeper’s gestures of waking up Rosei up are performed using the fan. The act of lying down and resting on the pillow is unique to this play. Likewise, the scene in which Rosei transitions from dancing at court to waking up in his bed requires a rare acrobatic movement.
The dance of the child-actor, as well as Rosei’s “Dream Dance” are special features of this play depicting the spectacular celebrations at court. The long instrumental dance called “gaku” is mostly performed in plays set in China and features numerous rhythmical foot stamps. Halfway through the dance Rosei looks down from his throne room, a gesture known as “sora ori” (descending from the sky) then steps down to continue the dance. This gesture may be open to many interpretations, adding to the special allure of this play.