The courtesan Hanago (shite in the first act), working at an inn in Nogami village, Mino Province (modern day Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture), has become the lover of Yoshida no Shōshō (waki), a young nobleman from Kyoto. However, Shōshō has been commissioned to travel to the eastern provinces. One spring day the lovers exchange fans as a token of each other's devotion and Shōshō embarks on his journey. Since that day, Hanago has abandoned her duties at the inn, constantly gazing at the fan she received from him. Angry with Hanago, the owner of the inn (ai) expels her, condemning her to wander the world homeless.
Shōshō eventually returns from his journey, but Hanago is nowhere to be seen. Heart-broken, Shōshō returns to Kyoto, where he goes on a pilgrimage to Tadasu Grove in the precincts of Shimogamo Shrine. At the grove appears none other than Hanago (shite in the second act), who has gone out of her mind with misery and despair. She prays to the deities to be reunited with her beloved. Not realizing that this is Hanago, Shōshō's retainer insists that the mad woman entertain them with some deranged dance.
Hanago acts out her madness, starting by reciting a poem by Hanjo.
Hanjo, also known as Consort Ban, was a Chinese noble lady who lost the favor of the emperor. She is famous for writing a poem in which she compares herself to a fan that has been discarded with the coming of autumn. The deranged Hanago recites Hanjo's poem and, holding the fan she received from her beloved, dances and sings about the agony of love, finally falling to the ground in tears. Shōshō recognizes the mad woman's fan and realizes that she is none other than his dear Hanago. Shōshō also takes out the fan with a drawing of a moonflower that he received from Hanago and both lovers are blissfully reunited. The fans had been a symbol of the deep feelings the two lovers had for each other.
Hanjo is one of the ‘monogurui‘, or "insanity Noh" type of plays. ‘Monogurui‘ is a type of stage art that revolves around song and dance performed in a state of trance or extreme agitation. The performer is also called ‘monogurui‘. The beauty of the ‘monogurui‘ in "Hanjo" is that it is interwoven with Hanago's feelings of love and affection.
A woman gone mad with love, expressing the torment of her deep yearning through dance and song, passionately conveying the feelings of Lady Hanjo - this is the main focus of the play.
One of the keywords in the play is "fan". Since ancient times, the tale of Consort Ban (Hanjo), has been widely known in Japan and there have been many poems and songs composed about her. In the process, the image of an abandoned woman has become strongly associated with Hanjo. This image typically describes a lone woman in autumn (the Japanese word for "autumn" is an homophone of the word "to get bored of someone"), sitting in her moonlit bedroom, with a round white fan by her side. This image can be imagined through the keywords in Hanago's lines - "moonlit bedroom", "the color of an autumn fan", "snow-white fan" and others.
In addition to that, Hanago holds the fan she has received as a promise for reunion (the Japanese word for "fan" is a homophone of the word "to meet"). The fan that was initially meant to symbolize rejection becomes a token of affection and devotion. The exchange of fans between lovers can be seen in the "Yugao" and "Flowery Banquet" chapters of "The Tale of Genji", as well as in other narratives related to the imperial court.