A series of epistolary testimonies are given before the High Police Commissioner of Kyōto surrounding the discovery of a murdered man’s body in a grove. As in any detective story, we learn the events from the head and tail instead of in linear fashion.
The first account is that of the woodcutter who discovered the man's body in the woods. He says the man died of a single sword stroke to the chest, and that the trampled leaves around the body showed there had been a violent struggle. There were no swords nearby, and not enough room for a horse—only a single piece of rope, a comb and bloodstained bamboo blades.
A traveling Buddhist priest delivers the next account. He says that he saw the man, who was accompanied by his wife on horseback, on the road, around noon the day before the murder. The man was carrying a sword, a bow and a black quiver.
The next person to testify is a hōmen (a released prisoner working under contract to the police, similar to a bounty hunter). He has captured a notorious brigand named Tajomaru. Tajomaru was injured when thrown from his horse, and he was carrying a bow and a black quiver, which he suspects was stolen from the body. Tajomaru was not carrying the dead man's sword, but he believes there is proof enough to convict him of the murder.
The next testimony is from an old woman, who identifies herself as the mother of the missing girl. Her daughter is a spirited, fun-loving 19-year-old named Masago, married to Kanazawa no Takehiko—a 26-year-old samurai from Wakasa. Her daughter, she says, has never been with a man other than Takehiko. She begs the police to find her daughter and her testimony trails off as she drowns her words in tears.
Next, Tajomaru confesses to killing Takehiko, but not the girl. He says that he saw them on the road and upon first seeing Masago, decided that he was going to capture her. He made a plan to lure Takehiko into the woods with the promise of buried treasure. He then gagged him with bamboo leaves, tied him to a cedar root and calmly brought Masago back. When she saw her husband tied up, she pulled a dagger from her bosom and tried to stab Tajomaru, but, being a skilled brigand as he is, he successfully dodged her attack and had his way with her. Originally, he had no intention of killing the man, he claims, but after the rape, she begged him to either kill her husband or kill himself—she could not live if two men knew her shame. The survivor would be her new husband. Tajomaru, observing proper dueling etiquette, untied Takehiko so they could have a fair swordfight. During the duel, Masago fled, but Tajomaru did not notice. Tajomaru took the man's sword, bow, and quiver, as well as the woman's horse, which was simply grazing quietly. He says that he sold the sword before the bounty hunter captured him.
In a Penitent Confession, Masago gives her account. According to her, after the rape, Tajomaru fled, and her husband, still tied down, had an indescribable light in his eyes that made her shudder. She no longer wanted to live, but she said she couldn't leave him alive as he was. He agreed, or so she believed—he couldn't actually say anything because his mouth was still stuffed full of leaves—and she plunged her own dagger into his chest. She then unbound Takehiko, and ran off into the forest, whereupon she attempted to commit suicide numerous times, she said, but Kwannon, a bodhisattva goddess, must have kept her alive.
The final account comes from Takehiko through a "Medium.” The spirit says that after the rape, Tajomaru persuaded the beautiful entranced Masago to become his wife; Masago assented, but then Tajomaru suddenly turned pale and cried that he must kill Takehiko. Tajomaru kicked Masago to the ground, and asked Takehiko if he should kill her. Hearing this, Masago shrieked and fled into the forest. Tajomaru then cut Takehiko's bonds and ran away, saying his fate was next. Takehiko grabbed Masago's forgotten dagger and plunged it into his chest. Soon, his spirit leaves his body and retrieves the dagger from his breast, leaving him to sink down into the darkness of space.
"In a Grove" is one of the most popular of Akutagawa's short stories, having been adapted into a film in 1950 and also widely translated into many languages during the '90s. Whereas this version of the story was translated over 50 years ago, Jay Rubin's recent translation of this text in Rashōmon and Seventeen Stories provides a more modern understanding of the Japanese language, the biggest change being that Masago doesn't truly confess in the way that we know the word. It is more akin to "repentance" or "penitence" because of its religious connotations.
At a quick glance, it is easy to see that the three stories do not match up. In fact, Tajomaru, Masago, and Takehiko each say that they killed Takehiko with their own hands. The things we can presume to know are as follows: 1) Takehiko is dead, 2) Tajomaru raped Masago, 3) Tajomaru stole the arrows, quiver, and horse, 4) Masago wishes Takehiko to be dead, 5) Masago and Tajomaru did not leave together.
There are many discrepancies between the various accounts and they vary vastly in significance. For the woodcutter, who first discovered the body, mentions a comb that is never brought up again. He also speculates about a "violent struggle" that trampled the leaves, which only occurs as a duel in Tajomaru's story. When asked to describe the body, the woodcutter says that it wears a Kyōto-style headdress and has a single fatal sword stroke across the chest. These two details are problematic because Masago's mother specifically indicates that Takehiko is not from Kyōto and for the sword stroke, Masago and Takehiko both blame a dagger that is thrust into the chest for his death, not a slash.
In the Buddhist priest's account, there were more than 20 arrows in Takehiko's quiver, but the hōmen says there were only 17. No arrows were shot in the duration of the story. Whereas the Buddhist priest says that Masago wore a lilac kimono, Masago says that Takehiko wears this lilac kimono. The woodcutter says that Takehiko wore a blue kimono.
Tajomaru says nothing about how Masago's dagger disappeared from the grove, which is key to both Masago and Takehiko's accounts of the murder. Masago also neglects to mention how Takehiko's sword disappeared from the grove, though Tajomaru admits that he dropped it during his escape.
Masago omits any post-rape conversation and says that Takehiko hated Masago and found her disgusting afterward. According to Takehiko, he is only enraged when she asks Tajomaru to kill him, and according to Tajomaru, Takehiko still loves her so much that he duels for her love.
And lastly, Takehiko's account introduces the shadowy character that takes the dagger from his chest just before he dies. In the film version (Rashomon, 1950), the woodcutter steals the dagger, but this is slightly inconsistent with his account of the blood being already dried up at the scene. In Takehiko's account, blood flowed up to his mouth as the dagger was released. In both Takehiko and Masago's accounts, Tajomaru kicks Masago down after the rape. Of course, Tajomaru admits only to the duel that follows the rape because he wants to make a wife of Masago.
In short, this story is tough to summarize because of its constant refutations, even in seemingly insignificant details such as the Kyōto-style headdress and the colors of the kimonos. One may wonder how it could be possible to have such varied accounts of the same incident - an incident in which the very real evidence of a murdered man cannot be accounted for.