The story takes place in early spring, when the snow has still not fully melted. A Buddhist priest (waki) living in Mount Yoshino embarks on a journey to see the capital Kyoto in springtime.
Upon arriving in Kyoto, he finds himself at Ichijō-Ōmiya, near the old Imperial palace. There he finds a time-worn villa with a beautiful plum blooming in its yard. As the priest is enjoying the gorgeous plum blossoms, a woman (shite of act one) appears out of nowhere and addresses him.
The woman tells him that in the past nobles would gather at this place to entertain themselves by composing poems and playing music.
The priest asks the woman about her identity and she reveals that she is in fact the spirit of a butterfly. As butterflies hatch only during warm seasons, it is a pity that they cannot get to enjoy the plum flowers as they bloom during the chill of early spring.
The woman asks the priest to soothe her sorrow by the power of Buddha's Law. The woman speaks of butterflies in literature, such as in the story "The Butterfly Dream" in "Zhuangzi" and the "Butterflies" chapter of "The Tale of Genji".
Finally, she tells the priest to wait for her under the blooming plum tree and disappears into thin air.
A man (ai) living in the neighbourhood of Ichijō approaches the priest and tells him the history of the villa and the plum tree. Before leaving, the man recommends that the priest spends the night in prayer in order to appease the butterfly's soul.
As the priest is chanting the sutra, the butterfly's soul (shite of act two) appears before him. She expresses her gratitude and dances and frolics among the plum blossoms. Relieved of her sorrow, the butterfly soars into the early morning sky.
It is a fact that as they hatch in the warmth of Maytime, butterflies never get to see plum blossoms, which usually bloom in the chill of early spring. As the plot is based on this idea, the focal point of this play is the depiction of the innocence of a butterfly frolicking among the plum blossoms. That is why, in some versions of the play, the role of the butterfly is performed by child actors.
The scene is laid out in Ichijō-Ōmiya, near the old imperial palace. In the Noh play, there is a line mentioning the words "...near the field of Uchino". In the Muromachi era (14~16c.), the field around the remains of the old Imperial palace were known by the name Uchino.
During the Ōnin War (late 15c.), Ichijō-Ōmiya became the scene of a hard-fought battle as it was near Nishijin, where the troops of Yamana Sōzen's Western Army were located. The author of "Kochō", Kanze Nobumitsu, created plays full of dramatic developments such as "Funa-Benkei" and "Momijigari". He lived during the period after the Ōnin War, when Japan was torn by constant warfare.
Also mentioned in the play are some episodes taken from Japan's classical literature which refer to butterflies. The reference to the story "The Butterfly Dream" from the ancient Chinese book "Zhuangzi" casually directs the audience's attention
towards the transience of reality. (The story is about Zhuangzi, who, after dreaming that he is a butterfly, has a suspicion that he might in fact be a butterfly dreaming that it is Zhuangzi).
The play also refers to the chapter "Butterflies" from "The Tale of Genji", weaving the poems which Murasaki-no-Ue and Akikonomu-Chūgū dedicated to butterflies into the libretto.
Using the butterfly and the plum blossoms as symbols of the unchangeable nature, the play juxtaposes the image of the high culture of ancient nobility with the severe scenery of the devastated capital Kyoto.