A woodcutter and a priest are seated beneath the impressive gate into the city of Rashomon as a means of protection against the rain when a common appears. He joins them beneath gate and the two immediately launch into telling him about the distressing story they witnessed. The woodcutter discovered the body of a murdered samurai three days ago and the priest confirms having seen the samurai traveling with his wife earlier that day. The woodcutter and the priest were summoned to court to bear witness, and the police arrive with a bandit in custody who had confessed to the murder. This framing device paves the way for flashbacks that give each of the participants a chance to offer their own subjective version of what took place.
The Bandit’s Tale:
The bandit proves to be a notorious outlaw and his story is one involving tricking the samurai to veer off the mountain trail with the enticement of ancient swords. Once he got the samurai into the grove, he tied him to a tree and then fetched the man’s wife. While she valiantly attempted to defend herself with the use of small dagger, the bandit ultimately succeeded in what he terms a seduction. Afterward, overcome with guilt and shame, she begged the bandit to challenge her husband to a duel to death in order to avoid the presence of two men who bore witness to her dishonor. The bandit claims gallantry by agreeing to this demand, thus arguing that the samurai’s death was therefore not murder but an honorable defeat in battle. The woman then ran away into the woods. At the conclusion of his tale, the court inquires about that expensive dagger that was left behind. He explains that he simply forgot about it amidst all the confusion, and pleads to being foolish in allowing such a valuable prize to escape his greedy grasp.
The Wife’s Tale:
The samurai’s wife also appears in court, but her version is markedly different. She claims that the seduction was, in fact, rape and that afterward the bandit simply left. She went to her husband and begged for forgiveness, but received only cold silence. Releasing him from his bondage to the tree, she begged her husband to put her at peace by killing her. Again, the samurai merely stares with disgust and hatred. This expression so distressed the woman that she fainted with the dagger still in her grip. Upon coming back to consciousness, her husband lay dead with the dagger sticking from his chest. Her attempt to commit suicide failed.
The priest and the woodcutter then tell the commoner beneath the gate with them that the testimony of the dead samurai was even heard. This was accomplished through the intervention of a medium through whom the spirt of the dead samurai related his version.
The Samurai’s Tale:
The samurai explains through the medium that after raping his wife, the bandit asked her to go off with him. She agrees and then begs to kill her husband. That way she can absolve herself of the guilt of belonging to different men. The bandit, appalled by this display, grabbed her and offered the samurai the choice of whether she lived or died. It was this offer that moved the samurai to feel compassionate enough to pardon him. Meanwhile, the wife runs away and after failing to catch up to her, the bandit returned and set the samurai free. He then took up his wife’s dagger and killed himself. Somebody later removed the dagger.
The Woodcutter’s Story
After the trial, the story returns to the city gate where the woodcutter tells the commoner that every one of the accounts told at the trial was a lie. He knows this because he witnessed everything, but never came forward with everything knew because he just didn’t want to get involved. The woodcutter explains that the bandit pleaded with the wife to marry him, but instead she chose to set her husband free. The reason the husband was not willing to fight the bandit was because he could not see the wisdom in risking his own life for that of a spoiled woman like his wife. The woman then began upbraiding both her husband and the bandit with recriminations challenging their manhood. In fact, she had incited the men to fight over her only to cover her face once they raised swords to each other. The men reluctantly fought, resulting in a duel far less honorable than that described. The only reason that the bandit emerged victorious was the result of a lucky stroke that left the samurai begging for his life on the ground before the bandit ran his sword through him. This caused the woman to flee in terror. The bandit, failing to catch up to her, instead grabbed the samurai’s sword and limped away.
Following the woodcutter’s story, all three hear the sound of a mewling baby. They discover a basket with the baby inside. The commoner steals a kimono and amulet that was left behind for the baby. The woodcutter confronts the commoner over the theft from a defenseless infant, but the commoner turns the table on the woodcutter when he realizes that the real reason for his silence in court was that he was the one who took the missing dagger. The commoner takes his leave with the expression of a philosophy that each man is only motivated by his own self-interest.
The priest holds the baby, overcome by a sudden lack of faith in the goodness of man. The woodcutter reaches for the baby and the priest backs off, suddenly suspicious of the other’s intent. The woodcutter allays his fears by asserting that since he has six children of his own already, one more will hardly matter. This information suddenly changes every assumption about the woodcutter in the mind of the priest, and thus restores his belief in the goodness of humankind.