Along with his companion, a Buddhist priest (waki, waki-tsure) from Shinano in Kiso Province (now Nagano Prefecture), travels to Awadzu Bay in Ōmi (now Awadzu City, Shiga Prefecture) to conduct a memorial service for the hero Kiso Yoshinaka, also a native of Shinano.
As the priest arrives at Yabase Bay on the eastern coast of Lake Biwa (currently Kusatsu City, Shiga Prefecture), he notices an old man (shite in the first act) rowing a boat used for carrying firewood. The priest asks the boatman to take him on board. The old man is reluctant at first, but since it is good karma to help a Buddhist priest, he finally agrees.
While on the boat, the old man tells the travellers about Mount Hiei and other famous places around Lake Biwa. Having arrived at Awadzu Bay, the old man mysteriously disappears as the priest and his companion step out of the boat.
The priest is soon approached by the local ferryman (ai), who is surprised to see a traveler who he does not recall having ferried to the shore. The priest tells the ferryman about his strange encounter. In turn, the ferryman recounts the whole story of Kiso Yoshinaka's march on the capital and how he was slain at Awadzu. He also mentions Yoshinaka's loyal retainer Imai Kanehira, who tended to his master till the very end and finally committed suicide.
The ferryman assumes that the old man must have been Kanehira's ghost and suggests that the priest hold a memorial service for both Yoshinaka and Kanehira. At night, as the priest chants prayers, dressed in full armour, the ghost of Imai Kanehira (shite in act two) appears before him, lamenting his tortures in the Warriors' Hell. He speaks of Yoshinaka's last moment, how he had the intention to commit seppuku, but couldn't go through with it since he was shot by an arrow, and asks the priest to dispel Yoshinaka's regrets through prayer. At the end, Kanehira's ghost reenacts the moment of his heroic suicide - after finding out about Yoshinaka's death, he leaps backwards off his horse while holding his sword in his mouth, and falls onto his own blade.
The play "Kanehira" is based on Chapter 9 of "The Tale of the Heike", and depicts the strong lord-vassal relations between Kiso Yoshinaka and Imai Kanehira, as well as their heroic deaths as seen through the eyes of Kanehira's ghost. Kanehira was in fact Yoshinaka's foster brother. They had grown up depending on each other, and had developed as strong a bond as if they were one flesh and blood. It is thought that Kanehira was the brother of Tomoe Gozen.
In the first half of the play, while enumerating the famous places around Lake Biwa, the old man uses intricate phrases alluding to the doctrine of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.
For example, the boat taking the travellers to the opposite shore is superimposed upon the image of the boat that takes the souls to the land of salvation. The solemn atmosphere that the libretto alludes to contrasts with the delightful and heart-warming description of the fresh green scenery around Lake Biwa in early summer.
The old man silently disappearing upon reaching the shore is a device rarely seen in Noh, but the puzzlement it causes raises the audience's anticipation of the second act.
In the second act, Kanehira's ghost laments the impermanence of the human world and recounts Yoshinaka's final moments.
Kanehira's ghost and the choir take turns singing the lines throughout the story. In this case, the choir not only narrates the account, but also gives voice to Kanehira's feelings.
At the end, Kanehira draws his sword and performs a series of heroic movements literally illustrating the lines "without stopping, he hacks and slashes in all directions to vanquish the enemy". Pay close attention to how the lines that describe Kanehira's suicide - "with his blade in his mouth he falls backward" - will be acted out.