The great Buddhist priest Ryōnin (waki) from Ohara-no-Sato (present-day Ohara, Kyoto) is traveling to Yamato Province (present-day Nara Prefecture) in order to spread the teachings of the Yuzū Nembutsu school. Upon arrival, Shōnin asks a local man (ai) about the three famous mountains in the area. The local informs him that they are called Mount Kagu, Mount Unemi, and Mount Miminashi, commonly referred to as "Mitsuyama" - the Three Mountains.
Soon, a woman from the nearby village (shite of act one) approaches the priest. The woman recounts a legend as described in the poetic anthology "Manyōshū", where Mount Kagu is presented as a husband with two wives - Mount Unemi and Mount Miminashi.
Once upon a time, a man called Kashiwade-no-Kinnari, who lived on Mt. Kagu, favoured two beautiful women - Sakurago from Mt. Unemi and Katsurago from Mt. Miminashi. Eventually, Kinnari set his heart on Sakurago, which led the the brokenhearted Katsurago to drown herself in the pond of Mt. Miminashi. (Depending on the direction, the woman from the village may ask the priest to write her name in his book of believers, after which she reveals that she is in fact Katsurago before disappearing into the pond on Mt. Miminashi.)
The local man reappears, tells the priest the whole story of the three mountains, and asks him to conduct a memorial service for Katsurago.
Later that night, the ghost of Sakurago (tsure) appears in front of the praying priest, and asks him to release Katsurago from the grudge that haunts her. Suddenly, the ghost of Katsurago (shite of act two) appears and attacks Sakurago. Eventually, Katsurago is released from her grudge, and together with Sakurago asks the priest to pray for her, before disappearing into thin air.
The play "Mitsuyama" is based on the poetic anthology "Manyōshū". The story draws upon a poem by Emperor Tenchi, who wrote about the struggle between the three mountains since the Age of Gods. The play also combines the legend of Sakurago, who was wooed by two men, and the legend of Katsurago, who drowned herself in the pond of Mt. Miminashi after being courted by three men.
Mt. Kagu, Mt. Unemi, and Mt. Miminashi are also known as the "Three Mountains of Yamato" and are located near Asuka in Nara Prefecture, where the capital Fujiwara-kyō (694~710) was located.
Mt. Kagu, or Ama-no-kaguyama, in particular, has always been regarded as a sacred place of worship, as it was believed to be the mountain from which the gods descended from the heavens. During the scene where the woman from the nearby village describes the local landmarks, the entire stage transforms into the peaceful scenery of Nara surrounded by the three mountains.
The second act of the play features a scene called "kakeri," in which Katsurago goes insane with jealousy. Another highlight is the scene with the so-called "uwanari-uchi", during which Sakurago and Katsurago strike each other with clubs. Uwanari-uchi is a traditional term describing any act of physical aggression by the former wife towards the new wife.
From the Muromachi period (1336-1573) until the Edo period (1603-1868), ex-wives would gather their relatives and friends and attack the home of the husband's new wife. In this play, the actors perform a special technique - Katsurago swinging a katsura-tree branch and Sakurago wielding a cherry-tree branch - to represent the fight between the two wives. However, the rivalry between the two women is not entirely expressed, but is rather hinted at by the contrasting words of the chant such as "flowers" and "snow".