Sumidagawa (Noh)

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  • Japanese: 隅田川 (Sumidagawa)

Sumidagawa is a Noh play by Kanze Motomasa of the fourth category (monogurui Noh, "madwoman plays").


  • Shite - a madwoman from the capital
  • Waki - a boatman on the Sumidagawa
  • Wakitsure - a traveler from the capital
  • Kokata - the ghost of Umewakamaru, the madwoman's son

Plot Summary

It takes place on the Sumidagawa (the main river running north-south along the eastern edge of Musashi province, and of Edo/Tokyo), and features a woman from Kyoto, distraught over the disappearance of her son, who has come all the way to Musashi - a rather remote and sparsely popular place in the pre-modern period - hoping to find him.

The play begins with a traveler (waki) asking a ferryman for a spot in his boat, so as to cross the river. A distraught noblewoman in elegant garments then appears. A sprig of bamboo carried by the actor is a standard Noh convention indicating her madness. She explains, through poetry, that her only son was kidnapped by slave traders, and that her love for him has led her here, though she has gone mad along the way as a result of her distress.

The boatman is hesitant to have a mad person in his boat, and states that he will allow her onboard if she performs a crazy dance for him. Offended, she replies in refined Kyoto language that she is a noblewoman and will not stoop to such things; she recites, too, a famous poem from the Tales of Ise, "O, birds of Miyako / If you are worthy of your name, / Tell me, does my love still live?"[1] Moved by her own poem, the woman does a crazy dance, and is permitted to enter the boat.

Shortly afterwards, the boatman, traveler, and madwoman begin to hear chanting from the opposite riverbank. The ferryman explains that a year earlier, a twelve-year-old boy who had been kidnapped by slave traders fell ill and died; the locals buried him here, he explains, and they are now saying prayers for him. The woman realizes this boy was her own son, Umewakamaru. She wails and cries, and the boatman leads her out of the boat to the gravesite, where the locals ask her to lead the prayer service. But she is at first unable to speak, and simply collapses to the ground, before finally uttering a few words of the prayer. Then, her son (played by a child actor, a kokata) appears from behind the mound, but when she reaches out to him, the ghost fades away and disappears, and as morning comes, the mother is left heartbroken.

In some versions, the boy does not appear at all, but only his voice is heard. Today, the Buddhist temple Mokubo-ji stands on the supposed site of that grave.[2]


  • Ishii Mikiko. “The Weeping Mothers in ‘Sumidagawa, Curlew River’, and Medieval European Religious Plays.” Comparative Drama 39, no. 3/4 (October 1, 2005), 287–290.
  1. This poem is recited in the Tales of Ise also on the Sumida River; though the birds seen on the river are known as miyakodori, or "capital birds," they are here in the boonies in Musashi, and not in Kyoto. Yet, in the Ise, the poem references an idea that these birds travel between the two places, or otherwise are aware of goings-on in both places, and thus can be asked about the status of the poet's lover, back in the capital.
  2. Timon Screech, “Going to the Courtesans: Transit to the Pleasure District of Edo Japan,” in Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon (eds.), The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Oxford University Press (2006), 266.