Part One: The Tragedy of the Maiden Scorned

I’m not a theater professional. But I love teaching about Japan’s classic theaters—Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku. One tale among all others captures students’ imagination, “The Maiden of Dōjōji,” a story of monstrous transformation. It is performed in the Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku theaters.

Over the summer I saw the character come alive in a dance practice in Japan, giving me fresh appreciation for the tale.

In this series of posts, I want to tell you about my unusual and up-close view of the dancing maiden demon. Let me start here by telling you about the tale itself and the androgynous figure of the shirabyōshi who dances it in Kabuki.

The Kabuki Dōjōji dance, “Kyōganoko Musume Dōjōji” (The Maiden of Dōjōji), is derived from an earlier Noh play. The Noh play has even more ancient roots, originating in a Buddhist miracle tale. Without going into lots of sources and details, here’s the gist of the central story:

A young maiden named Kiyohime falls in love with a handsome priest named Anchin. He rebuffs her, due to his celibacy vows, and slips away to the Dōjōji Temple. Naïve and goaded by her desire for Anchin, Kiyohime pursues him. When she reaches the Hidaka River, it is so swollen with recent rains, she cannot cross. Frustrated, angry, and embarrassed, her bitterness coalesces in her heart, turning her into an angry serpent. She crosses the river easily and heads after Anchin.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Thirty-six Ghosts series

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Thirty-six Ghosts series

Meanwhile, the priests at Dōjōji Temple, in an effort to protect the young monk, hide him under a massive iron bell. But, as the vengeful snake, Kiyohime, coils around the bell in anger and strikes it again and again. Her tail pounds so forcefully that she gives rise to flames. Anchin is incinerated!

Dojoji engi emaki detail

Dojoji engi emaki detail

In the Kabuki dance the Kiyohime-Anchin story hovers in the background but is not enacted directly on stage. Instead, the story element of the dance concerns a young shirabyōshi performer. She initiates the action of the play by traveling to the Dōjōji Temple where the priests are dedicating a new temple bell.

Shirabyōshi denotes a category of female performers who flourished during the medieval era. They were often invited to perform for emperors, daimyō, or high-level priests. Although these dancers were highly talented, they were itinerant (like most performers in the medieval era, Noh actors included) and therefore on the margins of respectability.

An interesting aspect of the shirabyōshi is her androgynous costuming. She wore a courtier’s formal cap, often carried a sword at her waist, and otherwise cross dressed as a man in her performances. To see a shirabyōshi perform on the Kabuki stage invites a wonderful entanglement of genders. The onnagata, the Kabuki actor who specializes in female roles, performs as a woman who is dressed as a man.

Painting of Shirabyoshi, Shizuka, by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1825

Painting of Shirabyoshi, Shizuka, by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1825

In the dance-drama, “The Maiden of Dōjōji,” the shirabyōshi dancer asks the priests to allow her to perform for the dedication of the bell. Since no women are allowed on the premises during the dedication, they deny her request. She dances outside the temple gate in such a beguiling way, the priests cannot help but let her in.

Her lovely movements reveal her maiden spirit, but as she dances she becomes more and more agitated. The tempo of the dance grows intense until by the end, the “maiden” has climbed atop the bell, her hair in disarray and her kimono slipping back to reveal the triangular scales of a serpent. Now we realize she is Kiyohime, and she has returned to exact revenge.

In a final pose of defiance, the dancer casts her gaze from one shoulder to the other until with a final snap of the head, she rivets the monks below with a gaze as sharp as a bolt of lightning.

The scene is mesmerizing.

The performance then—and now—displays the power of the original shirabyōshi to express the inexpressible and to use her dance in protest for those consigned to the margins. The dance also highlights the talent and beauty of the Kabuki onnagata. It is a long, complex performance with a number of signature “quick changes” of costumes that take place in full view of the audience. Only dancers who have achieved a high-level of skill are able to complete the performance. See the links below for video clips from actual performances.

In my next post, I will described how a friend of mine, a dancer and a choreographer, invited me to see the way she introduced the Dōjōji dance to her colleagues. I made plans to visit her studio—a space she rented in an old house not far from my Kyoto airbnb.

Keep an eye my blog for the follow up story!

To see glimpses of the “Maiden of Dōjōji” performed on the Kabuki stage, check out these YouTube videos:

This recreation includes two dancers towards the end.
Note the first quick change at marker 1:13.
Note the glare from the bell at marker 4:30.

This clip shows an anime version followed by live action:

At marker 1:09 we move to a live performance of Kabuki
At. marker 2:38 you will see a “quick change.”
At 3:10 note “the glare.”