A group of Yamabushi mountain priests from Kumano (waki, waki-tsure) are traveling to Hiraizumi in the Ōshu province. As they pass through in Sano in Kōzuke (Takasaki City in Gunma prefecture), they meet a Young Man and a Young Woman (shite and tsure in the first act) collecting donations for the construction of a bridge.
The two convince the Yamabushi to make a donation. The priests ask about the poem “letting go of the Floating Bridge of Sano on the Eastern path…” in the Man’yōshū, and the two tell a love story with a tragic ending related to Funabashi, the “Floating Bridge”.
Two lovers who lived on the opposite sides of a river used to meet crossing the floating bridge of boats every night. However, their parents, who disapproved of their relationship, removed the boards that formed the bridge. Unaware, the lovers tried to cross the bridge one more time but fell in the river and died.
The Man and the Woman reveal to be the ghosts of the protagonists of this sad story. Asking the Yamabushi to pray for their salvation, they disappear.
A Villager (ai-kyōgen) appears and retells the story of the two lovers, explains Man’yōshū poem quoted earlier, then he urges the Yamabushi to dedicate a prayer to the couple.
Night has fallen. As the Yamabushi begin a memorial service, the Ghost of the Man and the Ghost of the Woman appear. The Man explains how, since his death, he has been suffering for not being able to reach enlightenment.
The Man re-enacts how he fell into the river and his sufferings in hell. Finally, thanks to the Yamabushi’s prayers, the Man and the Woman can be released from their attachment.
“Funabashi” is an early play belonging to the Dengaku performance tradition. Its author is anonymous, but the play was later revised by Zeami Motokiyo. It is thought that Zeami added the scene in which the lovers collect money for the construction of the bridge to the pre-existent plot, which was largely based on the quote from the Man’yōshū.
The ai-kyōgen explains the words “let go” (tori hanasu) appearing in the quote. The parents of the two look for the corpses of their children, but cannot find them. Since it is said that “birds cry over a dead body”, they look for birds. However, “there is no bird” (tori ha nasu).
The title “Funabashi” refers to floating bridge made with boats connected with chains. In the first act of the play, the image of the “bridge” is associated with world of the Yamabushi, followers of an ascetic cult founded by the mythical figure of En-no-gyōja, and with the legend of the Goddess of Mt. Kazuraki (Hitokotonushi-no-mikoto), in which another bridge appears.
The second act features the reenactment of the meeting between the two lovers. The Man sees the Woman appearing on the other side of the river, tries to approach her, but does not realize that the bridge had been severed. He falls into the river and dies.