The Agoi Abbot (a Buddhist high priest) worships the Bodhisattva Kannon. He sets off for Ishiyama Temple with his followers. Along the way, they are approached by a woman who claims to have gained fame for writing The Tale of Genji at Ishiyama Temple, but because she failed to dedicate her work to Kannon, who is worshipped there, she has been unable to attain Buddhahood. The woman asks the priest to hold a memorial service for her. When the priest inquires if she is Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the Tale of Genji, she disappears without confirming her identity.
Upon completing his duties at Ishiyama Temple, the abbot remembers his promise to the woman and begins the memorial service for The Tale of Genji and Murasaki Shikibu late at night. Then, the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu appears and expresses gratitude for the priest’s memorial service. The abbot asks the ghost to dance instead of providing a monetary reward for this prayer, the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu performs a dance and chant about the transience of life, earnestly praying for the salvation of Hikaru Genji, the protagonist of The Tale of Genji, and herself. As the memorial services for Genji and Murasaki Shikibu come to an end and dawn breaks, she gains assurance of her enlightenment. It turns out that Murasaki Shikibu was an incarnation of the Kannon Bodhisattva of Ishiyama Temple, and The Tale of Genji was written to preach the impermanence of the world.
Genji kuyō is a play of the third category (women plays) in which Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the eleventh century court novel The Tale of Genji appears and performs a dance as a form of memorial service for the character Hikaru Genji. According to Buddhist teachings, stories are “fanciful and deceitful tales.” Writing them is considered a violation of the precept against false speech. Reflecting this belief, in the medieval period Murasaki Shikibu was thought to have fallen into hell for violating this precept, and memorial services were conducted for her.
Genji Kuyō, as the title suggests, dramatizes the memorial service for The Tale of Genji and its author Murasaki Shikibu. The Agoi Abbot (Agoi, or Agui Hōin), appearing in the play, was renowned for his preaching and guidance. The play is said to be based on the Genji Monogatari Hyōbyaku, a commentary on The Tale of Genji attributed to him.
The highlight of the play is the dance performed by the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu, known as kuse. The lyrics utilize the Genji Monogatari Hyōshaku and weave in the names of 26 out of the 54 chapters of The Tale of Genji, reflecting on the impermanence of the world and seeking guidance towards the Pure Land.