Yamamba (山姥)


Contributed by David Surtasky

Yamamba (山姥) (summary)

A fifth category play attributed to Zeami

Many years ago there was a popular dancer in Kyoto nicknamed Hyakuma-yamamba. She was famous for creating a kusemai telling the story of a Yamamba, a Mountain Crone who lived deep in the mountains.  Along with her servants and retainers, she decided to go on a pilgrimage to the distant Zenkō-ji temple to worship the enshrined Buddha and offer prayers.

moss_forrestThe company traveled from Kyoto by boat through the Shiga Bay. They went over the pass at Mount Arachi, and even crossed the Tamae Bridge. Their journey was a long one with their ox-carriage as they passed Shigoe and saw the pine trees of Ataka obscured by low hanging clouds. They moved over the steepness and sharpness of Mount Tonami, and eventually came to the Mikoshiji road and finally upon the village of Sakaigawa. They had left Kyoto far behind them.

Inquiring of a local man, the party asked which road was best to reach Zenkō-ji. The local man told them of three passes through the mountains, but advised that the Top Pass (Agero Pass) was the most desirable since it was said that Amida Buddha himself had traveled this road. The pass was very steep and so had to be navigated on foot. The party decided that going this way, leaving their ox-carriage behind and following in the Buddha’s footsteps, was best. They asked the local man to guide them through the pass and on to the temple.

Suddenly, and without warning, they discovered that the sun had set before its time. Even though it should only have been mid-day, they found themselves shrouded in darkness. Seeking shelter from the quickening night, they came across an old woman. The woman made the offer for them to stay in her modest hut.

When the company arrived at the hut, the woman revealed that she had personal reasons tree_forrestfor inviting them. She asked that Hyakuma-yamamba might perform her famous dance for her, saying that she herself had caused the sun to set early in the sky in order to entice them to her home. The woman said that the shidai of the song described the Yamamba as being dragged about by rightness and wrongness as she made her way in circles round the mountain. She offered her complaints about the portrayal of a Mountain Crone, since she herself certainly was one and that since Hyakuma-yamamba had achieved her fame through telling the tale of Yamamba, she was indebted to an actual Crone.

Hyakuma-yamamba found herself frightened by this strange request. Confronted by the aged woman she was unsure this apparition might perhaps be an ogre. She prepared herself to sing and dance in the gathering gloom of the great mountain. Wait, declared the old woman. Wait until the darkness is complete and the moon rises. If you would wait until clouds cast shadows from the moon, then I will return in my true form and dance along with you. Having said this, the old woman disappeared into the night.

yamambaA man from the area appeared and spoke with Hyakuma-yamamba’s retainer. He told the retainer about the Mountain Crone saying that she was an assemblage of objects; metal from the eaves of temples and acorns, mushrooms and vines. The villager then hurried off about his obscure business.

As the unnatural night wore on, Hyakuma-yamamba felt she had to follow the Crone’s instructions. She brought out her flute, and played it in harmony with the wind in the pine trees. In the clear stream running through the mountain gorge she could see the moon reflected in the water, like the moon reflected in a cup. In time the Mountain Crone reappeared.

You must know who I am, declared the Crone. Hyakuma-yamamba was frightened. Although the Crone had the appearance of a human, her hair was wild, her eyes shining and her countenance fearful. The Crone spoke of a rain-filled night when a demon consumed a woman in a single swallow, and Hyakuma-yamamba worried that perhaps that would be her fate as well. Differences between right and wrong, stated the Crone, were a struggle and delusion of the mind.

At last the Mountain Crone requested that Hyakuma-yamamba perform her famous dance. The dancer could not refuse. The sound of the waterfall in the mountain gorge became the hand drums, and together they began to dance as if they were falling plum flowers. The Crone spoke of Buddha’s Law, and said that the mountains were made of dust and mud and the oceans nothing more than accumulated dew drops. She made comparisons between the peaks of the mountains and the heart of the Buddha, she made comparisons between the depth of the valley and the mercy of the Buddha. The Crone said that her origins were unknowable, that she was not human, and that she only followed the clouds and the rain.


The Mountain Crone explained her state, and preached of Buddha’s Law. The laws of the waking world exist due to the laws of Buddha. Enlightenment can exist if evil passion can exist. Creatures of the earth can exist if the Buddha exists. The Mountain Crone can exist if earthly creatures can exist. While in the world of humanity the Crone may help a wood-cutter with his heavy load, she may hide away in the room of a weaver and stay at a spinners’ house. Those of low birth could not see her, and she would be recognized only as a spirit of evil. The frost on her sleeve was buried in the silver moonlight. All of this, the Mountain Crone decried, was her delusion. She bade Hyakuman-yamamba to return to Kyoto and tell them her tale: it is a tortured journey to be dragged through the mountains, confused by thoughts of right and wrong.

mountain_grove_2Living beneath a tree, drinking water from the stream. Hyakuman-yamamba and the Mountain Crone had danced together. The Crone asked the dancer to sing a phrase of the kusemai, and think of her in her travels through the transient world. Even if the dance were just for entertainment, still it might remind mankind about the Buddha’s Law.

Longing for flowers. Waiting for blooms in the spring. In the fall, chasing the moon. In Winter the cold and sharp rain. Greeting the snow and ice and dragging through the mountains. Round and round again. The Great Wheel turns, and the Crone with it, caught up in her transmigration. Dragged through the mountains confused by the thoughts of rightness and wrongness. Time and again, through the mountains. Her destination unknowable.



About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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1 Response to Yamamba (山姥)

  1. Pingback: Dancing the Crone | Theatre Nohgaku Blog

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