Donald Keene :: Atsumori is the name of a young general. He’s described in the work, The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari), which in turn describes the warfare in Japan at the end of the twelfth century.
In the original text, we have him as a young warrior who is on a horse and is galloping away from the scene of battle, where his forces have been defeated.
Another man on a horse comes after him, and he says, “Stop, don’t be a coward, fight.”
And the two men fight, and in the course of the fighting, the young man is knocked off his horse, knocked onto the ground, and the other man tears off the young man’s helmet, sees he’s a boy of sixteen, and he doesn’t want to kill him. His own son, who had been wounded that day, was miraculously saved. He’s thinking, these boy’s parents, they’ll be thinking about him, I don’t want to kill him.
But he sees other men of his side come, and then he thinks well, I haven’t got any choice. And he says, “Tell me who you are. I would like to save you, but I can’t. Tell me who you are.”
And the young man is insolent. He’s lying there with the sword pointed at his throat, but he says, “Oh, cut off my head and show it to the people on my side. They’ll tell you who I am.”
And in the end, the warrior, the older warrior, cuts off the head of this young man. But the experience has so horrified him that he becomes a priest, and he is resolved to pray for the salvation of the man that he killed.
So the central figure [in the Noh version of the play] is Atsumori himself — a
young warrior. At first we see him as a reaper, with a group of other reapers,
in the field. The priest [the older warrior who killed Atsumori] sees them,
and he wonders who they are, and one of them seems a little bit different
He has a flute
with him and seems unusual. And he talks to him, and gradually, he becomes
aware that this is, in fact, the young man he killed [that is, the strange
reaper is Atsumori], and this is a ghost
he’s talking to.
In the second part of the play, the young man [Atsumori] comes back in his
splendid uniform, the form in which he was seen, and he thinks, "Now is my
chance to get even. I’ve come back to the world, and now I can get even."
But at that
moment, they realize that the only salvation for them is if they both becomes
priests, to be born again in the same lotus paradise. And this is one example
of how Buddhism showed itself in the Noh plays.