A group of Yamabushi mountain priests from Kumano are traveling to Hiraizumi in the Ōshu province. As they pass through Sano in Kōzuke (Takasaki City in Gunma prefecture), they meet a Man and a Woman collecting donations for the construction of a bridge.
The two convince the priests to make a donation. A priest asks about a poem from the Man’yōshū anthology: “On the Eastward Road, the bridge of boats at Sano has been severed now,” and the two tell tragic a love story related to Funabashi, the “Floating Bridge” of Sano.
The story has it that, long time ago, two lovers who lived on the opposite sides of a river used to meet every night, crossing a bridge of boats. However, their parents disapproved of their relationship. One day, the parents removed the boards that covered the boats. Unaware that the bridge had been severed, 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 lovers. After asking the priests to pray for their salvation, they disappear.
A Villager appears and retells the story of the two lovers, explains the poem mentioned earlier, then he urges the priests to dedicate a prayer to the couple.
Night falls. As the priests 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 underwater, unable to reach enlightenment.
Later, the man re-enacts how he fell into the river, and his sufferings in hell. Finally, thanks to the priests’ prayers, the Man and the Woman can be released from their attachment.
Funabashi is an early play, belonging to the Dengaku performance tradition. Though the author is unknown, 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 a pre-existent plot, which was largely based on the story quoted in the Man’yōshū anthology.
Part of the story centers on the play on the words tori hanasu, which can be read both as “to severe” and “there is no bird.” After the bridge was severed, the couple fell in the river. Since it is said that “birds cry over a dead body,” their parents looked for birds, but could not find any.
The title of the play, Funabashi, refers to a 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 mountain priests, followers of an ascetic cult founded by the mythical figure of En-no-gyōja, who ordered the Deity of Mt. Kazuraki to build a stone bridge.