A drizzling rain falls on the busy streets of the town. Amidst the bustle of passers-by, a seemingly aimless young man stands without even an umbrella to ward off the rain.
As the people pass on and the sidewalk clears, we see a man named Kanakura watching the young man. Kanakura approaches the young man with a few brusque words and suddenly punches him on the cheek. Kanakura’s sudden violence seems to awaken the previously reaction-less youth and restore consciousness and words to him. But, at the same time, the youth appears to have lost his memory. Kanakura gives him the name Nanafushi and the youth becomes his apprentice.
Neither Kanakura nor Nanafushi are visible to the people of the town. On the train they are met by one of Kanakura’s friends, Higurashi, and together they head for their gathering place in the square at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Kanakura, Higurashi and their friends are spirits called
who live in people’s homes as guardian spirits. And, it turns out that in the previous encounter Nanafushi has just been recruited by Kanakura as an apprentice
. Soon Nanafushi, Kanakura and Higurashi are joined by another of the
Kanakura now begins Nanafushi’s training to become a guardian spirit like the others. To take up residence as a guardian spirit in a home, the
must first visit the home at a time when all of the family members are present and be served tea by them. Then, if the family members become convinced that the
is indeed a guardian spirit, the contract is complete. In contemporary society, where people do not trust others easily, it is a difficult task to become accepted as a
. To offer Nanafushi an example of one success story, Kanakura has Taikouchi tell him about how he came to be accepted. Taikouchi begins to tell the story of how he became the guardian spirit of Tetsuhiko Umezawa and his wife Ikuko. Taikouchi’s memories are reproduced.
Despite the fact that he was first drawn into a husband and wife quarrel between the Umezawas, Taikouchi succeeded in being offered tea and accepted into the home as its guardian spirit. At the time, Tetsuhiko had just launched a new company. Taikouchi’s presence becomes a boon to the couple and Tetsuhiko’s business prospers.
Meanwhile, the couple’s sad past is revealed. Their young son had drowned in a family outing to the beach. To Ikuko, Taikouchi soon takes the place of the son she lost, but the sight of her motherly affection toward Taikouchi irritates Tetsuhiko. In tears, Ikuko begs Taikouchi to help her see her lost son again. Making such a request is a violation of the
contract. Nonetheless, Taikouchi is able to continue living in the Umezawa home.
As he listens to Taikouchi’s story, Nanafushi begins to revive his own memories and the play shifts to a retelling of Nanafushi’s story. His name in life had been Takeo. His father had disappeared when Takeo was six, and he was later discarded by his mother at the age of 18. Before leaving, his mother had given Takeo an advertising leaflet for a handyman company, telling him that was where his father had worked. Takeo visits the company and they take him in. The first job Takeo is taken to by one of the senior workers of the company, Kyusaku Yaguchi, is to collect money from a young woman named Kimi Mochida, who has taken responsibility for the debt her parents accumulated after becoming involved in a religious cult.
Kimi works part-time at a restaurant Kyusaku frequents. After work, Kyusaku and Takeo follow her to her home and burst in demanding payment. This is the first Kimi has heard of her parent’s debt and she is stunned to learn of it. But, she says she will work and pay off the loan, because it is a trial that her parents have given her and she believes it will surely strengthen her to overcome it. There is something strange about her behavior, however. From time to time she speaks to herself in a strange way, as if she is speaking to someone that is invisible to them.
Convinced that Kimi is lying when she says she will work and pay off the loan, an angry Kyusaku tells Takeo to get rough and show her they mean business. The room quickly erupts in a fight between Kimi and Takeo. Then suddenly, Takeo crumbles to the floor, as if struck by a violent blow.
Takeo has died. And, with unexpected resignation, he accepts his reincarnation as the
Nanafushi in a positive attitude. For Takeo, there is fascination in the new job of being a guardian spirit, but he doesn’t really know the meaning of “bringing happiness to people.” At this point, the drama returns to the continuation of Taikouchi’s story about the Umezawas.
Eventually, Taikouchi reached the end of his term as
for the Umezawas. The “end of term” comes when the
feels satisfied and would like to stay in the home indefinitely. There is no set time limit for this, and in each case it is different. When the end of term comes, the
leaves in his place a feathered creature called a
(also known as a kesalan patharan) that is only visible to people who are happy.
The couple is sad to see Taikouchi leave. They have now accepted their son’s death and move to a new home for just the two of them. With Taikouchi gone, however, their business begins to go poorly and their lives lose the fulfillment they had felt before. “When things were going well, I always had the feeling that it was too good to be true,” admits Tetsuhiko. As Ikuko tries to encourage him, he also confides that for some time now he has no longer been able to see the
. It has been the same with Ikuko. Crying, the couple vow to face life anew together. And, in that moment, the
they had both lost sight of appears once again before their eyes. In their new-found strength, the couple decides not to confine the
to the house anymore but allows it to come and go outside as freely as the wind.
With Taikouchi’s story finished, Higurashi begins to relate another story, revealing that he had in fact been present at the Mochida apartment when Takeo died. He goes on to tell about the events that followed.
Because Takeo was without family by that time, the handyman company president, Sakuma, decided they would keep the death a secret between the three people present at the time of the incident. To ensure her silence, Kyusaku is told to help take care of Kimi’s debt. Kimi remains firm in her determination to pay off the debt by herself until she learns that she was being tricked and the debt was merely a ruse by her parents to desert her. This realization finally leads her to face reality and open herself to Kyusaku’s care.
One day, Kyusaku says, “I get the feeling that I just saw a strange man.”
The next day, Higurashi ends his term as guardian spirit of the Mochida home and leaves. It was the figure of Higurashi that Kyusaku had seen. Kyusaku tells Kimi that he believes it is a sign that they should become her family now, because the guardian spirit believes she is all right now.
The conclusion of these stories marks the end of Nanafushi’s training to become a
, and what he has just heard has brought a stream of tears down his cheeks. Clearly something deep and powerful has welled up inside him.
Eventually, Nanafushi leaves smiling on his new mission as a
, and as they see him off, Kanakura sees in him the image of the great
of the past, Kometsuki, who became a god of happiness. Higurashi agrees. “I hope he forgives me … for being drawn to his special talent as I was,” says Higurashi, Finally he whispers his secret in Kanakura’s ear.