This play was based on feud in the Date family, part of the Sendai Domain during the Edo Period (17th to 19th centuries). In the story, Nikki Danjo—a regent of the Ashikaga family in Oshu (present-day northeast Japan)—and his younger sister Yashio plot to seize power in their family.
The main scenes still performed today include ‘Goten’, in which Masaoka, nursemaid to the child lord Tsuruchiyo, saves the boy from the conspirators due in great part to her own son; ‘Yukashita’, in which Arajishi Otokonosuke guards the palace from under the floor but is overcome by Danjo’s rat magic, Danjo steals and escapes deliberately; and ‘Taiketsu’ and ‘Ninjo’. In these last two scenes, Danjo loses his case in a trial over the plot due to Hosokawa Katsumoto. Danjo protests the verdict and resists, but is put to death as a result.
Masaoka is the key character in the ‘Goten’ scene. This is considered one of the great nursemaid characters in the Kabuki tradition.
Danjo has gained renown as a villain attempting to take over the country, linked to the enchanting nature of his actions despite having evil intentions.
Masaoka’s son, Senmatsu, is ordered by his mother to protect Tsuruchiyo and he keeps her words. When Sakae Gozen of Danjo’s gang of plotters bring a suspicious-looking sweet for the young lord to eat, Senmatsu grabs it and takes the first bite. The supposed treat contains deadly poison, but to conceal that fact Yashio stabs Senmatsu to death as Masaoka looks on. The nurse remains true to her duties, concealing Tsuruchiyo inside her long outer garment to protect him. Even as her own son dies, she shows no emotion.
Only after the villains leave and Masaoka is alone does she express her sorrow. This scene in which Masaoka says “You have done well” to dead Semmatsu and praises Semmatsu's loyalty, is for the audience the best part of the recitation, a lament called kudoki. The highlights of this scene are Masaoka's expression of her true feelings by her musical speech and her gestures perfectly synchronized with the shamisen accompaniment.
In the ‘Yukashita’ scene, Nikki Danjo makes his appearance through an elevator linked to the hanamichi stage. This particular elevator device is widely used for entrances by actors playing ninja (assassins), goblins or ghosts. With Danjo employing his mysterious “rat magic” in this play, he appears from the trapdoor lift. The theater lights are dimmed, and he is illuminated by the old method of placing candles at the end of long poles. This eerie special effect enhances the strange atmosphere around Danjo.