Izutsu (Noh play) (井筒 (能))

"Izutsu" is one of the most representative Noh pieces. It is believed to be a work by Zeami, who was so proud of this piece that he praised it as a work of the finest quality in Zeshi Rokuju Igo Sarugaku Dangi (Zeami's Reflections on Noh). A characteristic of the piece is that the female Shite (main character) which is often played by a man is further dressed up as a man.


Mae-Shite (lead role of the first half): Village woman (incarnation)
Nochi-Shite (lead role of the latter half): The woman of Izutsu (spirit)
Waki (supporting role): a traveling monk
Ai (role of a kyogen actor): Villager
An artificial izutsu (wooden frame around a well) is placed at the center front of the stage. The ears of Japanese pampas grass are planted.


The piece is a Fukushiki Mugen-Noh (dream Noh play split into two sections) based on 'Tsutsuizutsu (curb of a well)' of passage 23 in "Ise Monogatari (The Tales of Ise)." The piece is a Daishomono with a Jo-no-mai (introductory dance), featuring a young woman as the Shite. It depicts the relationship of ARIWARA no Narihara and the daughter of KI no Arutsune who were childhood friends, with the spirit of the daughter of KI no Aritsune, also called 'the woman of the Izutsu,' as the main character. An izutsu is a wooden frame around a well.

First Half

A traveling monk appears on stage with a nanorifue (flute performance). The monk is visiting various provinces while practicing asceticism, and on the way has come by Ariwara-dera Temple in Isonokami, Yamato Province (present Tenri City, Nara Prefecture).

This was where ARIWARA no Narihira and his wife used to live, but now there is no trace of those times.

Ariwara-dera Temple has already fallen into ruins and a bunch of Japanese pampas grass is growing from the izutsu, a vestige of Narihira and his wife's relationship.

While the monk is performing a Buddhist rite for Narihira and his wife, a village woman (actually the spirit of Narihira's wife) appears accompanied by a shidai (musical accompaniment performed by the hayashi [musical ensemble] used for the entrance of characters) and offers flowers and water to Narihira's barrow.

When the monk speaks to her, she gazes at the well of memories and begins to speak of the old days, while concealing the fact that she is Narihira's wife.

She tells of how in the past, she kept her unfaithful husband by her side through her love and devotion (refer to the story Tsutsuizutsu). Her recollections go back to how her relationship with Narihira started.

In this province, there was once a man and a woman who had known each other since childhood.'

They used to play together around the izutsu, chatting happily and looking at each other's reflections on the surface of the water.'
However, when they reached adolescence they both got more and more self-conscious and drifted apart from each other.'

Then one day, the man sent a poem to the woman.'

Tsutsuizutsu, to the izutsu, my stature, it has grown taller, while not seeing my younger sister'

I have grown a lot taller than those days when I used to play with you and we compared our heights with the izutsu.'
In the time I spent not seeing you'

The woman replied with a poem.'

Kurabekoshi (comparing the lengths of hair), furiwakegami (a center-parted bob), passed my shoulders, except you, who to tie for'

The hair I used to compare with you has grown a lot longer, past my shoulders.'
There is no one but you I would tie my hair for as wife.'

She says this is how they were united in marriage. Finally, she reveals that she is (the spirit of) the wife of Narihira and leaves.

(Here the Igatari [sitting narration] by the Ai who has appeared from katamaku [lifted curtain] starts.)
(Similar story is told in Ai kyogen [comic interlude in Noh].)

Second Half

The monk decides to spend the night at the temple.

After an issei (shout), the woman appears again in the monk's dream.

She is dressed as a man, wearing a court cap and noshi (everyday clothing for nobles at the time) which used to belong to Narihira.

Then she says 'though it is embarrassing,' and dances the Jo-no-mai, imitating Narihira when he was still alive.

While she dances, she remembers the old days when she waited for a husband who would not return. Then her memories take her back further, to the day Narihira proposed to her. As she sings a poem from 'Tsutsuizutsu' which Narihira sent her, she realizes that she has grown old.

Her feet carry her to the izutsu, a fond place in her memories. Then she reflects her figure, wearing Narihira's noshi, on the surface of the water just as she used to when she was a child.

The reflection on the water's surface was that of Narihira himself.

Here the jiutai (Noh chorus) stops and the stage is momentarily enveloped in silence.

She mumbles 'oh how dear...' and bursts into tears.

Then she disappears like withering flower leaving only its scent behind, and the monk wakes up with the toll of dawn.


In the story of 'Tsutsuizutsu' in Ise Monogatari, a woman rejects an offer for marriage to wait for her beloved man, and after marriage, again waits for her unfaithful husband's return.

Therefore the Noh version of Izutsu has re-interpreted the story of Tsutsuizutsu as a story of a wife waiting for her beloved husband, and there are several waka (traditional Japanese poems) that have been added, expressing the bitterness and sense of loss related to waiting.
(See section of waka for reference)

Also, chronologically, the story goes back in time. The piece starts with the Buddhist rites for the dead husband, going to the story of the wife waiting for her unfaithful husband, and finally to the heart of the story, the beginning of their relationship.

In this manner the story 'focuses more and more on the devoted love for her husband.'

The original verse in the poem from Ise Monogatari is 'Tsutsuizutsu, to the izutsu, my stature, has well passed' – the last line has been changed to 'it has grown taller.'

This is in preparation for the latter half of the story.
She realizes she has grown old while singing the poem from 'Tsutsuizutsu,' because the word 'grow' has the same pronunciation as the word 'age.'

Izutsu quotes a part of the poem that begins with 'Mayumi Tsukuyumi...' from passage 24 of Ise Monogatari, therefore there is an interpretation that the female Shite and the woman in passage 24 are one and the same.

According to this interpretation, the husband goes to the capital for court duty after the incident of Tatsuta-yama Mountain, and is not heard from again.

The woman waits for her husband's return, but 3 years later, she finally gives up and decides to marry another man.

However, her husband returns on the day the marriage is finalized. The husband, taking in the situation, steps aside and leaves her. The woman goes after her husband but is unable to catch up with him, and her strength gives out and she dies.

The following opinion has been presented regarding the Shite dancing in imitation of Narihira.
It is believed that wearing Narihara's clothes as an expression of longing for him would induce a sense of euphoria in her, taking her back to a time when their love was as yet untroubled, because it would give her a sense of fulfillment through her being possessed by Narihira or achieving a curious kind of unification with him.'


There are many waka quoted in Izutsu.

In the first half, while the female Shite is speaking to the monk about her memories with her husband, she recalls a poem she had dedicated to him a long time ago.

Passage 23, Ise Monogatari, 'Tsutsuizutsu'

When the wind blows, whitecaps in the offing, Mt. Tatsuta-yama, you at night, walk alone

When the wind blows white waves can be seen out at sea (robbers strike on Mt. Tatsuta-yama), I worry that you travel alone at night.

The woman leaves after 'Tsutsuizutsu' and 'kurabekoshi' are sung.

In the latter part, appearing in the monk's dream in her husband's noshi, she recalls a poem she had composed while waiting in vain for her husband.

Passage 17, Ise Monogatari

Called fleeting, said to be so, cherry blossoms, even those rare in the year, they wait for

Although cherry blossoms are said to be insincere as they are scattered by the wind in no time, they bloom beautifully waiting even for you, who comes so infrequently each year. You call me insincere but you are much more so.

She explains that because she had composed such a poem, she is called 'the woman who waits for one.'

Then she mutters 'Now that 'Mayumi Tsukuyumi (many) years have passed' since the old days of tsutsuizutsu, I shall dance like my husband,' and starts to dance.
(See 'Commentary' for details of the story of Passage 24)

Passage 24, Ise Monogatari

Azusayumi (bow of Japanese cherry birch), Mayumi (bow of Japanese spindle) Tsukuyumi (bow of Japanese zelkova [elm-like tree]), as I have done so, be graceful

It does not matter who the (new) husband is. Stay with him for many months and years (like there are different types of bows, we shared many experiences over many years), and be good to him in the same way that I treasured you.

As she dances in the moonlight she mutters, "when was it that I sang "the moon is not the moon from long ago, the spring of long ago."'

Kokin Wakashu (collection of ancient and modern Japanese poetry) Volume 15, Koiuta (Lovers' Poetry) Part 5, 747

The moon is not the moon from long ago, the spring is not the spring of long ago, myself alone remains the same

I wonder if the moon is not the same moon as the past, I wonder if the spring is not the same spring as the past.
Now that you are not here, both the moon I gaze at or the spring I spend alone feel different from last year, but I continue even now to think of you

After this poem about the bitterness of waiting is recollected, the poem of 'Tsutsuizutsu' is sung once again, and she realizes that she has grown old from the word 'grow' which has the same pronunciation as 'age.'

Then she looks down into the izutsu of memories and bursts into tears as she sees her husband's face reflected.

Performance Tips

Following are excerpts from 'Yonde Tanoshimu No no Sekai' (The World of Noh: Explored Through Text).

"Dobusho (Comments on Noh Plays)" by Nakataka SHIMOTSUMA, Noh performer in the Keicho era

The part 'Only the name remains, Ariwara-dera Temple has fallen to ruins' should 'show a feeling of attachment to the ruins'.

The utsurimai (transitional dance) (to dance like Narihira) is an 'otokohakase' (male role) dance, and 'in the korekiri (=the last part) the role should feature both male and female aspects'

For the part looking down into the izutsu, 'the section where she says, "how dear to see, even if it's myself how dear it is to see," is sometimes said as kenyou (to read things as is in waka) of yin yang'

"Chikatada Hisho (Secret Notes of Chikatada)" by Chikatada TOKUDA (1679-?), Noh performer from the Kishu Domain

Regarding the utsurimai, 'even though it is a female role playing a male role, to make it a male role after the later Dewa (name of hayashi) means to make it an utsurimai to a man of the past'

For the part of looking down into the izutsu, 'walk over to the stage setting and stand in front of it, hold the fan up like a scepter with both hands, and look into the well with longing'

Regarding Izutsu, the master Roppeita KITA (the 14th) has said, 'That's a Shukugen no mai (dance for words of congratulations).'

[Original Japanese]