After defeating the rival Taira clan, the relationship between General Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his brother Yoritomo has deteriorated. Fearing for his safety, Yoshitsune, his retainer Musashibō Benkei and other Retainers have left the Capital (Kyoto) and have now reached toward Daimotsu Bay (Hyōgo prefecture). With them is Yoshitsune’s lover, Shizuka Gozen. Benkei thinks it unsafe for Shizuka to continue travelling with the party and suggests that she return to the Capital. Yoshitsune trusts Benkei’s judgment and orders that Shizuka leave at once. When Benkei reports her Yoshitsune’s decision, Shizuka cannot believe that this is her lover’s will, but later she talks directly to Yoshitsune and feels ashamed for having doubted Benkei. A farewell party is held, cups of sake are exchanged, and Shizuka dances, shedding tears for the imminent departure.
Yoshitsune and his followers board the boat that the Boatman has prepared and set sail. Suddenly the wind rises, and the sea grows rough. A horde of ghost warriors who were defeated by Yoshitsune during the Battle of Dan-no-Ura emerges from the sea. They are led by ghost of Taira no Tomomori, who attacks Yoshitsune with his halberd. Yoshitsune tries to defend himself with his sword, but it is thanks to Benkei’s spiritual powers that the enemy is finally defeated.
Yoshitsune was the younger brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shōgun installed in Kamakura. Although Yoshitsune defeated the rival Taira clan at Dan-no-Ura, he was later pursued by Yoritomo, and eventually forced to commit suicide at Ōshū Hiraizumi (Iwate prefecture). Yoshitsune is the Japanese tragic hero par excellence, eliciting a sense of sympathy and respect.
The highlight of the first act is Shizuka’s dance. Though Shizuka was a professional shirabyōshi (a type of dancer popular in medieval Japan), willing to display her skills in front of her lord, she dances with a heart full of sadness for her imminent departure, and concern for the fate of her lover. The relationship Benkei, Yoshitsune, and Shizuka, characters bound by love and loyalty, is of particular interest.
The boat scene between the first and the second act requires the ai-kyōgen (comic interlude actor) performing the Boatman to describe the sudden change of the weather with speech and movement, together with the drummers, who describe the storm by adjusting the rhythm and the intensity of their shouts. The stage property representing the boat is a simple bamboo frame covered in white cloth.
The second act is dominated by the ghastly appearance of General Taira no Tomomori, who attacks Yoshitsune’s party with his large halberd, while kicking high waves against their boat.