Musume Dojoji

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  • Debuted: 1744
  • Japanese: 娘道成寺 (Musume Doujouji)

Musume Dôjôji is a kabuki play telling the story of a young woman whose jealousy turns her into a vengeful serpent spirit. It is based on the Noh play Dôjôji, and is comprised chiefly of a series of dances. The first kabuki performance based on the Noh debuted at the Nakamura-za in Edo in 1744, and was largely the creation of Segawa Kikunojô I. Nakamura Tomijûrô I created a new version some years later, called Kyôkanoko Musume Dôjôji, which has been particularly influential in the development of the most common or standard version of the play performed today.


The earliest version of the story may be that which appears in the Dainihon hokke kyô genki (c. 1040-1044) by the monk Chingen. In this text, a widow living in Muro district, Kii province, is visited by two monks on their way to Kumano on pilgrimage. She allows them to stay the night, but later makes romantic moves at the younger monk. The monk deflects her advances by promising he'll return to her on his return trip from the pilgrimage. He does not intend to honor this promise, however. When the woman realizes this, she locks herself in a room and, consumed by her anger, turns into a serpent. When the two monks hear rumor of a serpent spirit in the area, they take up refuge at the Buddhist temple Dôjô-ji; there, the older monk hides in the monks' quarters, while the younger monk hides under the temple bell. The serpent finds him, however, wrapping its body around the bell, and heating it up until the monk inside is cooked and killed. Some days later, the abbot of Dôjô-ji has a dream in which he meets two serpents unable to enter paradise; he commissions copies of the Lotus Sutra to aid them, and is ultimately successful in enabling them to enter paradise.

Another version of the story appears in Konjaku monogatari (c. 1120). The key difference in this version of the story is that the widow dies, and her dead body is found by the monks, before the serpent appears and chases them away. The story also appears in the Genkô shakusho by Kokanshiren (1278-1348).

The c. 1573 Dôjôji engi emaki ("Handscroll of the Origin of Dôjôji") reverses this separation of the woman and the serpent, and instead has the woman transforming into a serpent as she chases the monks.

The story was first performed onstage in the dance-play Kanemaki ("Wrapped around a Bell"). The daughter of of a wealthy merchant makes a pilgrimage to the Buddhist temple Kanemaki-tera, where she is told that women are not permitted onto the temple grounds, and are especially forbidden from striking the temple's bell. Upset at her misfortune at having been born a woman, she dances a dance of anger and hatred; in the process, she accidentally strikes the bell and is transformed into a serpent. A yamabushi arrives and uses Buddhist chants to repel the demon. Other dances which emerged out of the story involved the dancer dressing as a shirabyôshi - a female Heian period court dancer who entertained in men's clothing.

This dance later developed into the Noh play Dôjôji, which was then adapted by Segawa Kikunojô I into a kabuki performance in 1744. Though the notion of a shirabyôshi remains in some form, the dancer no longer wears men's clothing, but rather a decidedly female costume, albeit with notes that point towards that of a shirabyôshi. The various forms of Musume Dôjôji which developed out of Segawa's performance are today, collectively, one of the most famous and popular dance-dramas in the kabuki repertoire.

Dance Series

The play as performed today consists primarily of a series of fourteen dances, known within kabuki jargon as fourteen dan. Depending on the school or style in which it is performed, there is some difference of approach as to whether the central role is considered to be a woman possessed by a spirit, or a spirit in the guise of a woman, and also whether the woman is truly a shirabyôshi dancer, or merely dressed or disguised as one. While the late Bandô Mitsugorô X and his Bandô school of dance depict the serpent as innately a spirit, merely disguised as a woman disguised as a shirabyôshi, Sakata Tôjûrô IV chooses to dance with the idea in mind that the spirit is disguised as an actual shirabyôshi. Still, in both schools, there are significant portions towards the middle of the series where the performer is meant to forget portraying a spirit, and to simply dance as though portraying a young woman. Tôjûrô also introduced a purple kimono with kyôkanoko pattern into the Dôjôji costume, replacing the red one which had been standard up until that time; the kyôkanoko pattern had been referenced in the title of the play for nearly 250 years but had not been a standard element of the costume.

The dance series begins with a travel scene, or michiyuki, in which the spirit, in the form of a woman, dances with an ôgi (a non-folding fan). This is followed by a mondô (Buddhist question and answer) scene, and then a ranbyôshi scene known as hana no hoka ni ha matsu bakari ("besides the cherry blossoms, there is only the pine"). Ranbyôshi refers to a particular style of dance steps, set to a confused rhythm, central to the Noh play Dôjôji, and distinctive if not unique of this play, in both its Noh and kabuki forms.[1] In this scene, the spirit dances with a court cap (eboshi) emblematic of the shirabyôshi, and a fan in the style of the court.

This is followed by the "Middle Dance" or chûke no mai, and then a "hand dance" known as iwazu kataranu (not saying, not telling). This is the first of several dances which portray a sort of parallel narrative, of a woman growing up from childhood; this is not a part of the plot of the play itself, which concerns a slighted woman transforming into a vengeful serpent demon, but is nevertheless evident in the performer's movements and expressions in the dance. The child grows a little older in the handball song (mari uta) dance which follows, and a little older again in a hat dance called sangasa. In this section, the woman dances with three large red hats (one on her head, and one in each hand). These are arranged into a triangle at various points in the dance, and are decorated with triangular designs as well, a reference to the serpent's scales[2] that reveals subtly to the audience that the dancer is, in fact, a serpent spirit and not really a woman. This is followed by a hanagasa (flower umbrella) dance called "Two Shades of the Iris" (Ayame kakitsubata).

The woman of this parallel narrative grows to meet her first love in a dance called koi no tenarai ("learning about love") or kudoki, danced with a tenugui hand towel. Here, the serpent spirit begins to become more visible in the dances, where the previous several showed only the woman. A drum dance called yama-zukushi is performed with a waist drum (kakko), and is followed by another dance called taata no me, or "prayers should be granted," which is then followed in turn by a dance performed with tambourines (furitsuzumi).

The climax of the play comes with a section called kaneiri ("Entering the Bell"). In kabuki today, this scene typically involves the spirit climbing over a whole row of monks - whose white-clad bodies are meant to visually suggest the tail of a now massive serpent - to reach the red and white rope from which the temple bell is suspended. This is in contrast to the Noh, where the woman hides under the bell, the actor changing costume within that small space to later emerge more explicitly visible in her form as the serpent spirit. The kabuki play ends with one last dance piece, known as the "push back" (oshi madoshi).


  • Nakamura Gankyô, "The Maiden at Dojoji Temple," lecture at UC Santa Barbara, 24 Nov 2015.
  1. "Ranbyôshi,"
  2. Triangles are also used to reference a serpent in depictions of the goddess Benten, who is associated with a white serpent.