Due to certain past incidents, Dōjōji, a temple in the province of Kii (currently Wakayama Prefecture) has long been without a bell. Finally, a new bell has been cast, and a memorial service has been arranged for its installment. The Abbot of Dōjōji (waki) orders a group of Temple Servants (ai-kyōgen) to forbid any woman to enter the temple precincts during the ceremony.
Meanwhile, a Dancer (shite in the first act) specializing in shirabyōshi (a popular form of dance performed by women) has traveled from a village nearby and has now reached Dōjōji. Promising to show her dances, she persuades the Temple Servants to let her in despite the orders they received. The night is falling over the cherry trees in full bloom. The woman wears a dance hat and performs the ranbyōshi (lit. ‘crazy steps’, a special dance unique to this play). Suddenly, the dance switches to a fast tempo. At the climax of the dance, she jumps into the bell, which falls onto her.
Awaken by the sound of bell crashing and shaking the ground, the Temple Servants hurry to the belfry, to find that not only has the bell fallen, but it is also scorching hot. After hearing the Temple Servants’ confession, the Abbot assembles the other Monks (waki-tsure) and recounts the story of the bell of Dōjōji. Long ago, the daughter of a man called Manago no Shōji, living in the coastal area close to the temple, fell in love with a priest who used to visit their house every year, and gradually became convinced that he would eventually marry her. Upon learning this, the monk panicked and escaped to Dōjōji, while the woman turned into a serpent burning with passion, and followed him to the temple. The man hid under the temple bell but the woman, now turned into a monstrous serpent, coiled herself around it and burned him to death.
The Abbot and the Monks realize that the shirabyōshi dancer who came to the temple today must be a manifestation of this woman and start performing an exorcism. Soon, the bell lifts and the woman reappears, now transfigured into a monstrous serpent-like creature (shite in the second act). The Abbot and the Monks confront the monster and manage to drive her away. Finally, the serpent jumps into the Hidaka river and disappears.
Performing particularly demanding plays such as Dōjōji represents a turning point in the life of a professional actor. In the world of noh, a shite actor is considered to have achieved artistic maturity, hence independence, only after having taken the shite role in Dōjōji. However, Dōjōji is treated as a particularly important play not only by shite actors but also by other performers.
Dōjōji differs from other noh plays in many ways. First, the large stage property representing the bell both the center of the story and the center of the action. Carrying it on stage and hanging it from the ceiling is a difficult task, and constitutes a performance in itself. The Ranbyōshi dance is characterized by prolonged moments of charged stillness during which the audience can experience the depth of the woman’s feelings, as well appreciate the skill of the performers.
After the ranbyōshi the atmosphere suddenly changes. At the height of the emotions, the shite performs the fast-tempo-dance kyū-no-mai, then jumps into the bell. Timing is essential to the execution of this action: the stage assistants must drop the bell while the shite jumps, giving the impression that the actor is sucked into the bell. The shite must change costume and mask inside the bell. Meanwhile, the action on stage continues with the humorous performance of the ai-kyōgen and the storytelling by the waki. Finally, the Serpent Woman, whose passion is expressed by the Hannya or Ja masks, and the Monks confront each other in a final battle.
The play Dōjōji is the sequel to a story found in various sources, including the Konjaku Monogatari and the illustrated Founding Myth of Dōjōji temple. What is currently performed is an abridged version of a pre-existent play called Kanemaki (‘Coiled Around the Bell’). During the Edo period (1603-1686), the play was also rendered into the kabuki play Kyōganoko Musume Dōjōji, the puppet play Hidakagawa Iriai Zakura, and the Ryūkyūan kumi-odori dance piece Shūshin Kaneiri.