The play is set in China during the T’ang dynasty (7th - 10th cent. AD). Young Emperor Gensō (Xuanzong), an enlightened sovereign, fell in love with the beautiful courtesan Yōkihi (Yang Guifei) and started to neglect his duties. Yōkihi’s family took advantage of this situation and started to meddle with politics. As Gensō’s rule got weaker, his opponents started a rebellion which resulted in the fall of the T’ang dynasty. The beautiful Yōkihi was also caught in the turmoil and was eventually killed. After her death Gensō mourned her deeply.
The play begins after Yōkihi’s tragic death. Anguished by his loss, the Emperor has ordered the Confucian diviner Hōshi (waki) to find out where her spirit has gone after departing from this world. Hōshi travels to the Eastern Sea and reaches Mt. Hōrai, a mythical mountain-island which is thought to be inhabited by gods and immortals. Here he finds Yōkihi’s spirit (shite) lamenting her lost love. When Hōshi reports Genso’s longing for her, Yōkihi, rejoicing to hear that he has not forgotten her, gives Hōshi a keepsake hairpin as evidence of their meeting.
Before Hōshi leaves, Yōkihi shows him the “Dance of Rainbow Skirts and Feather Robes” which she used to perform for Gensō. Remembering the summer night during which she and the Emperor exchanged love vows, Yōkihi dances. Hōshi finally leaves, as Yōkihi watches him disappear in the distance.
This play is based on the famous love story between Emperor Gensō and Yōkihi, appearing in the “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, by Bai Juyi. The poem was extremely popular not only in China, but also in Japan, where it influenced various literary works, such as the “Tale of Genji”. This play generally follows the narrative told in the “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”.
However, there is a major difference between the two works. In the original story Hōshi leaves after Yōkihi reports the words she exchanged with Gensō. However, in the play this scene is extended: Yōkihi calls him back and shows him the dance. This addition is meaningful in the context of a performance, which usually includes an instrumental dance towards the end of the play. It is said that Yōkihi learned the dance from Gensō, who saw it performed by Heavenly Maidents when he visited the Palace on the Moon. Yōkihi’s dance is in remembrance of this event.
In the performance variant “Tamasudare”, decorated headbands are hanging from the stage property, representing a curtain behind which sits Yōkihi. In the variant “Utenadome”, the play ends with Yōkihi returning to the pavilion.