A group of travelling Monks (waki, waki-tsure) from Bungo (Oita prefecture) is on its way to the Iwashimizu Shrine, near Kyoto. Since they have made it so far, they decide to visit other sacred places in the Capital.
As they pass through the Fifth Ward on their way back to their lodging, they hear a female voice reciting the verses “Not knowing the feelings / of the mountain rim before it…”. A Woman (shite in the first act) appears. She seems to be talking to herself, lost in thoughts.
Conversing with the Monks, the Woman explains that this place is referred to as “a certain estate” in the “Tale of Genji”. Later she explains that this mysterious estate is the remains of the Kawara-no-in Palace, where Hikaru Genji and Lady Yūgao used to meet. The Woman narrates how Lady Yūgao was killed here by an evil spirit. Finally, she reveals to be the ghost of Yūgao, and disappears.
Surprised, the Monk tells about this mysterious encounter to a Local Man, who urges him to dedicate prayers to the ghost of Yūgao.
Night falls. As the Monks recite the Lotus Sutra, they fall asleep. In dreams, the Ghost of Yūgao (shite in the second act) appears, rejoicing to be able to reach enlightenment thanks to the Monks’ prayers. As dawn breaks ths Ghost of Yūgao disappears.
The “Tale of Genji”, on which this play is based, is the 11th century masterpiece by Murasaki Shikibu, depicting the life of the courtiers and romantic adventures of its protagonist, Hikaru Genji - the Shining Prince. “Yūgao” is the title of one of the chapters in the book, recounting the story of Lady Yūgao, and how she was killed by an evil spirit.
The author of “Yūgao” is unknown, but the play was probably composed in the 14th or 15th century. At that time, nō audiences were familiar with the “Tale of Genji”, its characters, and the places where its stories were set.
In the play, quotes from the “Tale of Genji” abound. Among them two are particularly important. The first, attributed to Yūgao, is: “Not knowing the feelings / of the mountain rim before it / will the moon / cease to cast her light / while high above in the sky?” (tr. Janet Goff). Yūgao is compared to the moon, while the mountain represents Genji. The poem expresses the woman’s fears about Genji’s feelings. In the Kanze school, the performance variant called “Yamanoha-no-de” (yamanoha means “mountain rim”) emphasizes this poem. A stage property representing a hut is used in this variant.
The other poem, quoted in the second half of the play, is attributed to Genji, and reads: “With the guidance / of the pious pilgrim / who points the way, / do not disobey our deep vows / to remain together in words to come”. (tr. Janet Goff). Genji wishes that Yūgao will vow to be with him even in their afterlife. In the play, Yūgao’s feelings toward Genji sublimate into her salvation.
Pervaded by a subtle sense of melancholy, this play elegantly depicts Yūgao’s feelings toward Genji.