The story begins with the verbal testimonies of four people being questioned by a magistrate, a city official who exerts police and judicial authority. The magistrate is holding a hearing to determine what happened to a man found dead in a deserted bamboo grove near the Japanese city of Kyoto.
The first testimony is spoken by a woodcutter. He confirms that he is the person who found the body earlier, on the same morning he is giving testimony. While going out to cut cedar in the hills, he found the body, which was located a few hundred yards away from the Yamashina post road, in an uninhabited forest of bamboo and scrub cedar trees.
The woodcutter details the dead man’s outfit, noting his pale blue robe and fancy black hat with sharp creases, of the style worn in the city of Kyoto. Using visceral language, the woodcutter describes the violent state the man was in: one dry stab wound to the chest; bamboo leaves around the body soaked with dark red blood; a large horsefly sucking on the wound. Asked if he saw anything else, the woodcutter mentions a length of rope and a comb near the body. He also notes that the weeds and leaves around the body were trampled flat, suggesting the man was engaged in a fight before he was killed. When asked, the woodcutter answers that he doesn’t believe a horse could have gotten through the bamboo thicket to reach the body’s location.
The second testimony is delivered to the magistrate by a traveling priest. The priest says he spotted the man the day before near Checkpoint Hill, on the way to Yamashina. The priest says the man was walking next to a woman on horseback. The woman wore a long veil that obscured her face, while the horse’s color was a dappled gray with a tinge of red. The man carried a large sword, a bow, and a black-lacquered quiver of an estimated twenty arrows. The priest cannot believe such a well-equipped man would meet his death in this way. He compares the fleeting life of a human to a drop of dew and a flash of lightning.
The third testimony comes from a policeman, translated in some versions of the story as a bounty hunter. The policeman confirms that, the night before at “first watch” (8:00 PM), he captured the famous bandit Tajōmaru after Tajōmaru fell off his horse on a stone bridge at Awataguchi. Tajōmaru wore a dark blue robe, carried a long sword, as well as a bow and quiver of arrows that seem to match the description of the bow and arrows found with the dead man’s body. The policeman suggests that this must mean Tajōmaru is the murderer. Tajōmaru had been thrown from a horse that fit the description of the woman’s horse, as described by the priest.
The policeman informs the magistrate that Tajōmaru is known in Kyoto as someone “who likes the women,” a euphemism for the bandit’s reputation as a rapist. The policeman says that Tajōmaru is suspected of having murdered a pair of worshippers on a hill behind a state of Binzuru, one of the Buddha’s most important disciples and a popular figure of worship. The policeman suggests that if Tajōmaru did kill the man in the bamboo grove, he likely raped the woman the man was with; he suggested the magistrate should question the bandit.
The fourth testimony is given by an old woman who confirms that her daughter was married to the dead man. She says that the man was not in fact from Kyoto. His name was Kanazawa no Takehiro, and he was a twenty-six-year-old samurai who served in the Wakasa provincial office. She says he was kind and that she can’t believe anyone would hate him enough to murder him.
The woman says that her daughter is nineteen years old and named Masago. Her daughter is as bold as a man, and she has only ever been with Takehiro. She describes her daughter as having a dark complexion, a mole near her left eye, and a tiny, oval-shaped face. She says the Takehiro and Masago left Wakasa the day before. She says she is worried sick not knowing where Masago is. She says she hates Tajōmaru and then breaks down crying, unable to continue speaking.
The first section introduces the reader to the story’s unique mode of narration: rather than frame the narrative in a third-person omniscient perspective, Akutagawa chooses to present the story through multiple first-person accounts. By piecing together information from these testimonies, the reader gradually builds a picture of what led Takehiro’s body to be found in the bamboo grove.
The woodcutter introduces the story’s central conflict: a body has been found dead, and the magistrate has to determine who is responsible. The woodcutter delivers his testimony in a manner-of-fact way; he does not shy away from the details of the corpse. It is in the woodcutter’s testimony that the reader is introduced to the recurring images of the trampled leaves and the cast-aside length of rope, which foreshadow the struggles that will later be revealed.
The priest’s account introduces the image of the veiled Masago riding her dappled gray horse, introducing the motif of Masago’s beauty. He also introduces the presence of Takehiro’s bow and quiver of arrows. The priest ends his testimony with a lament, using metaphors to comparing the short, miraculous nature of life to a drop of dew and a flash of lightning.
The policeman’s testimony seems to corroborate most of what has been said, leading to the natural conclusion that Tajōmaru is responsible for the murder. Though the policeman’s testimony seems to clear up the question of murder, it is significant because it introduces the story’s second major conflict: what happened to Masago.
The old woman’s testimony further develops the conflict of Masago’s disappearance. She also contributes to the motif of Masago’s beauty, and characterizes Masago as bold—a detail that will resonate in later sections.
By the end of the first part of the story, the reader understands that an authorial presence is almost completely absent: it is only in the titles that introduce each new voice, and in the parenthetical description of Masago’s mother breaking down at the end of her speech, that we have a sense of the authority who is recording and collecting these accounts. This technique situates the reader in the magistrate’s position. By first turning the reader into an objective observer of the characters’ testimonies and then later presenting contradictory accounts, Akutagawa will be able to destabilize the reader’s notion of objectivity.