Tormented by an evil spirit, Prince Genji’s wife, Lady Aoi, has fallen ill. Various prayers and medications have been tried, but to no avail. A Retainer serving Emperor Suzaku asks the shamaness Teruhi and requests that she ascertain whether the presence tormenting Aoi is the ghost of a dead person, or the spirit of a living being.
Teruhi begins her ritual by striking the catalpa bow, a string instrument, while reciting a summoning spell; soon after a mysterious presence riding on a broken carriage draws near. Announcing herself as the spirit of Rokujō no Miyasudokoro, she laments her misery, recalling the happier days she spent as Genji’s consort, and comparing them with her current condition. Because of her resentment towards Aoi, her spirit has detached from her body and has appeared here. Accusing Genji of having abandoned her and feeling resentful toward Aoi, she approaches her sickbed and tries to kill her.
Suddenly Aoi’s conditions worsen, and a Servant is sent to summon Yokawa no Kohijiri, a priest living on Mt. Hiei. As Kohijiri begins to pray, Rokujō's spirit, now transformed into an evil demon, appears. The two fight until Kohijiri subdues the demon.
Aoinoue tells the story of ex-crown princess Rokujō no Miyasudokoro, a beautiful and refined woman who, rejected by Prince Genji, becomes jealous of his official wife, Lady Aoi. The source of this play is the “Aoi” chapter of the “Tale of Genji”, though some characters and developments of the story only appear in the nō rendition. For example, in the “Tale of Genji”, Rokujō's spirit aims at striking Aoi as she is pregnant with Genji’s child, yet this topic is not treated in the nō. In the play, Aoi’s role is not taken by an actor, but is instead represented by a costume laid at the center-front of the stage. Conversely, the characters of priestess Teruhi and the exorcist Kohijiri are creations of the author of the play. Perhaps the greatest difference is the conclusion: in the “Tale of Genji”, Rokujō’s vengeful ghost torments Genji and his lovers numerous times, while the nō ends with Rokujō reaching enlightenment.
Some parts of the play are closer to the world of the Tale of Genji. Rokujō's resentment towards Aoi spurred from an accident that occurred during the Aoi Festival, when Lady Aoi's retainers hit Rokujō's cart and pushed it to the back of the crowd that gathered to watch the parade, an unbearable humiliation. In the play this is referred to when Rokujo appears on stage: the word “car” recurs often, along with “Festival of the Cherry Blossom”, "Wormwood patch”, or “Asagao”, chapter titles of the “Tale of Genji”, evoking the elegant atmosphere of the novel.
In his treatise “Talks on Sarugaku” Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), the great innovator of nō, wrote about his rival Inuo, of the rival Ōmi troupe, performing Aoinoue. The performance methods of this ancient Aoinoue were quite different from today. For example, Rokujō would appear in a stage property representing the cart, followed by a young lady-in-waiting. Today, both cart and companion are only used in a variant of the play called “koshiki”. In the “azusa-no-de” variant, when Rokujō's spirit appears, the chant of Teruhi, as well as the sound of the small drum and large drum are meant to evoke the sound of the catalpa bow. This variant emphasizes the incantation of the priestess, hence the chant sung by Rokujō's spirit during her entrance is shortened.
The “kū-no-inori” variant affects the battle between the priest Kohijiri against Rokujō's evil spirit in the second half of the play. Matching the music of the hayashi orchestra, the two fight until Kohijiri watches the evil spirit disappears.