After a series of recent calamities hits the city of Kyōto, a servant seeks shelter from the rain under the deserted Rashōmon, Kyoto's southern gate. Having just been let go by his master, a samurai, he has no place to go. He contemplates becoming a thief to avoid his inevitable death, but is repulsed by this option. A pimple festers on his right cheek.
Having nowhere to go, he ascends to the tower of the gate, where he finds a gaunt old woman crouched amid several corpses. The woman is plucking long hairs out of a fresh corpse's scalp, one by one, and the servant is disgusted and repulsed by this.
He draws his sword, approaches the old woman, and demands an explanation for why she is plucking hair out of a corpse. The woman, frightened, responds that the corpses disposed of there were those of people who had done such evil things in their lifetimes that they deserved to have their hair plucked out of them, and that the only way she could avoid starving to death was to take their hair for making wigs. The woman who she is harvesting from now used to sell snake flesh to the guards of the gate as fish and they enjoyed it immensely.
Hearing this, the servant responds "Then it's right if I rob you. I'd starve if I didn't.” He suddenly wrests the kimono off the woman. He roughly kicks the woman onto the corpse and disappears into the night.
This story became the namesake for Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, Rashomon, but takes only a few things from the story, such as the theft of the kimono and the moral gray area between death and thievery as a survival tactic. The name "Rashōmon" itself comes from a Japanese Noh play (c.1420), which is altered from its correct title, "Rajomon," to replace the last character "jo" (“castle”) with "sho" (“life”). The plot itself is entirely different from Akutagawa's story.
In this story, the narrator plays the modernist role of a presenting the consciousness of the servant throughout. Indeed, many of the events are motivated by the narrator's interpretation of the servant's thoughts rather than actions. It is the shortest of Akutagawa's works and yet remains one of the most enduring stories because of its complex and nuanced telling of the ethical dilemma faced by many in times of poverty.
As is typical of Akutagawa's style, it provides fewer answers than questions. A servant who has served a samurai for most of his life must be very well versed in the samurai code of conduct, which is very rigorous. Indeed, one of the main features of the code is to face death without hesitance when necessary. But in this case, Akutagawa allows the servant to have an emotional reaction to an act that appears evil. It is an exaggeration of the act he has already contemplated acting upon, thievery. The woman who plucks hairs is not only dishonoring the dead people from whom she steals, but has also neglected the possible value of human life all together. The servant sees burglarizing the dead as a worse atrocity than stealing from the living, so his actions are more honorable than hers.
The woman, whose rationalization is only given because of the threat to her life, admits that it is an evil act, but a necessary one. She does no harm other than to blemish the honor of the dead. What other choice does she have? It is truly a choice between disenchanted life and death. Do the tenants of the samurai code of conduct apply when the situation becomes this dire? Do any morals survive in abject squalor? Furthermore, does rationalization of actions survive in this lowly realm? For the servant it is a big leap for him to become a thief, but the woman seemed to understand that she had no other choices to begin with, so she mindlessly went about making her living. All the while the rain and darkness pervade, giving this story a depressed and pessimistic quality.