Sheltering from a rainstorm in the ruins of the Rashomon gatehouse, a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) sit dejected. A commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them, and wants to hear the "strange story" they have just heard at a murder enquiry in the courthouse garden. The story has horrified the priest. Even though "year after year, it's been nothing but disasters," he has "never heard a story as horrible as this." The woodcutter is utterly confounded, and hopes the commoner can help him understand it.
The woodcutter begins the narration, telling the commoner that three days earlier he had gone "into the mountains to get wood."
The woodcutter is walking through the woods, carrying his axe. Sunlight filters through the foliage, dappling everything with a mix of sun and sharp shadows. He sees a woman's hat caught on a bush. Further along, he picks up a samurai's hat and some cut up rope. He sees something small amongst the leaves on the ground, and goes towards it, but does not notice the corpse right in front of him until he trips over it. He screams and, dropping everything (including his axe), runs away. He says, "I ran as fast as I could to tell the police. Then, three days later--today--I was called to testify."
The woodcutter is seated in the sunlit courthouse garden, addressing the court, unseen and unheard behind the camera. He testifies that he is the one who found the body. Asked if he saw "a sword or something," he protests emphatically that he found "nothing at all" but the hats, rope, and "a shiny amulet case." And here he lets slip two additional details: the rope was "near the body" and the amulet case had "a red lining."
The priest is seated in the courthouse garden. He testifies that he saw the man three days earlier, travelling on the road with a woman on a horse, and armed with a sword and bow and arrows. [There is a brief shot of the samurai passing on the road, turning to smile at his wife.] The priest comments on the fragility of life and offers condolences to someone off screen--presumably the wife.
The policeman (Daisuke Kato) is seated in the courthouse garden. The bandit (Toshiro Mifune) is sitting beside him, bound. The policeman identifies the bandit as the notorious Tajomaru. He had captured him two days earlier, at dusk. [There is a brief shot of the policeman finding the bandit writhing in agony on a riverbank. The bandit pushes him into the river.] He describes the weapons and horse belonging to the samurai. He concludes that Tajomaru must have fallen from the stolen horse.
The bandit hotly denies falling from his horse. [There is a brief shot depicting the bandit as he wants to be perceived: galloping in heroic mode across the horizon, with stirring music.] He explains to the court that he was thirsty, and drank from a spring. [There is a brief shot of him drinking thirstily from a stream.] He says it must have been contaminated, because he was ill and had to get off the horse. The bandit says he knows he is doomed, so he has no reason to hide anything. He says it was he who killed the samurai. [There is a scene of the bandit lounging against a large tree, watching as the samurai (Masayuki Mori) and his wife (Machiko Kyo) pass by, the samurai eyeing the bandit warily.] The bandit says he initially intended "to take her without killing the man."
Throughout the woodcutter's narration of the bandit's testimony the bandit's bravado and dignity are undercut. He has animal-like mannerisms, and appears indolent and ignoble, constantly scratching and swatting flies.
The bandit runs through the woods to catch up to the couple. He accosts the samurai, lures him into the woods with a tale of a cache of swords he will sell cheap, and jumps him from behind. He laughs in triumph, and goes to get the wife, tricking her by saying her husband has suddenly "taken sick." In the courthouse garden the bandit says the wife's look of concern made him jealous, and this made him want to humiliate the samurai.
Running through the woods, led by the bandit, the wife loses her hat. When they reach the grove she sees her husband tied to a tree stump. The wife, at first frozen and powerless, suddenly draws a dagger and fiercely attacks the bandit. She struggles, but eventually gives up. The bandit kisses her. She drops the dagger and embraces him.
In the court the bandit says that he "had succeeded in having her without killing her husband." Having got what he wanted, it would make sense for the bandit to leave the scene while he can easily get away.
In the grove, the bandit begins to leave, taking the samurai's sword. But the woman makes a bizarre melodramatic request that the men duel to the death. In response, he frees the samurai and lets him have his sword back. There is a fierce, dramatic sword fight. The bandit finally kills the samurai.
In the courthouse garden the bandit boasts that it was an honourable, impressive fight, claiming they "crossed swords 23 times." When asked about the woman, he has to think a moment about this odd loose end, and supposes she ran off in fright (contrary to the fierce spirit that had attracted him). Responding to further questions, the bandit says that he sold the samurai's sword to buy liquor, and that he had forgotten the dagger--a "foolish" mistake, as it "looked very valuable."
In the Rashomon gatehouse the woodcutter says the bandit's and the woman's stories were lies. The commoner observes that this is human. "Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves." The priest laments that this is because men are "weak." The priest says the woman was found hiding in a temple, and that she appeared at the enquiry. He says she showed no fierceness, was "almost pitiful."
The priest takes over the narration, and begins relating the woman's testimony.
The woman is in the courthouse garden, prostrate and weeping. She says after forcing her to "yield to him" the bandit laughed mockingly. In the grove, the bandit takes the samurai's sword and runs off. The woman embraces her bound husband, but he remains impassive. In the court, the woman says she saw "neither anger, nor sorrow, but a cold light, a look of loathing." In the grove, she begs him to stop, but he continues to look at her with cold disdain. She collapses in despair, then retrieves the dagger, cuts his bonds, and tells him to kill her. When he does not respond, she pleads for him to stop condemning her with his silence, and repeats this over and over as she approaches him with the dagger clenched in her hand.
In the courthouse garden she says that she must have fainted and that when she came to she saw her dagger in her dead husband's chest. She says she remembers only a pond [There is a brief shot of the surface of a pond.], and throwing herself in, and failing with several other attempts to kill herself. She dissolves in tears.
In the Rashomon gatehouse, the commoner comments that women "use their tears to fool everyone." The priest mentions "the dead man's story," explaining that "he spoke through a medium." The woodcutter says, "His story was also lies," and he looks away from them, agitated. The priest refuses to believe a dead man would be so sinful as to lie, but the cynical commoner observes: "But is there anyone who's really good? Maybe goodness is just make-believe. . . Man just wants to forget the bad stuff and believe in the made-up good stuff. It's easier that way." He asks the priest to continue.
In the courthouse garden, the medium (Fumiko Honma) performs a ritual around a small altar, and goes into a trance. When she speaks, it is the samurai's voice that is heard.
The medium/samurai tells a story that incorporates sentiments and actions that vilify the woman, and are out of character and illogical for the bandit, but that result in the bandit and the woman leaving separately, with the samurai free of his bonds. In this sequence there are frequent cuts between the grove and the courthouse garden.
The medium/samurai says the bandit "tried to console his wife." In the grove, the bandit is kneeling by the woman, who is lying on the ground. He "was cunning," telling the woman that he loved her, and that she should marry him now. She gives in to him, and agrees to go with him "wherever." But then she tells the bandit to kill her husband. The bandit is appalled, throws her to the ground, and asks the samurai what he wants: "Kill her or save her? You only have to nod." The medium/samurai laughs with triumphant satisfaction, and says: "For those words alone, I was ready to pardon his crime."
The woman runs away. The bandit chases her, but is unable to catch her. He returns, exhausted and frustrated. He cuts the samurai's bindings, and leaves, taking both swords. The samurai weeps. He sees his wife's dagger, and uses it to stab himself. In court, the medium collapses. In the background, the woodcutter's attention is riveted. The medium/samurai says: "Then someone quietly approached me. That someone gently withdrew the dagger from my heart." When the medium's testimony stops there, the woodcutter relaxes.
In the Rashomon gatehouse, the woodcutter paces thoughtfully. He suddenly asserts: "Its not true! There was no dagger. He was killed by a sword." The commoner looks skeptical, and presses the woodcutter to explain how he knows this. The woodcutter avoids eye contact when he claims that he was a witness, but did not tell the court because he "didn't want to get involved." He says he came upon the scene and, from behind a bush, observed the bandit begging the woman for forgiveness.
The woodcutter tells a story that incorporates elements from the different stories heard in court. He describes actions that are out of character and implausible, and the demeanor of the characters fluctuates wildly. There is no music--only the sounds of insects, rustling leaves, and gasping breath.
In the grove, the bandit begs the woman to go with him, and says he will do anything for her. She retrieves the dagger, and cuts the samurai's bonds. The samurai is still wearing his sword, but just stands there. The bandit assumes she wants them to fight a duel. The samurai refuses to risk his life "for such a woman." The bandit starts to leave. The woman laughs derisively, and derides them both for their lack of manhood. This drives the men to fight. The woman laughs, but then looks horrified. The men fight with farcical ineptitude in something resembling an undignified peasant brawl. The bandit finally spears the cowering samurai. The woman recoils from the bandit. He grabs the samurai's sword, and she runs away. He is too exhausted to chase her. He retrieves his own sword, and hobbles away.
In the Rashomon gatehouse, the cynical commoner doubts this story. The priest despairs that men cannot trust one another. Then they hear an abandoned baby cry.
When the woodcutter berates the commoner for stealing the baby's kimono, the commoner deflects the criticism by condemning the parents who abandoned their child. He says that no one is honest. He hasn't been fooled by the woodcutter. He knows the woodcutter must have stolen the dagger. The woodcutter hangs his head in shame. The commoner slaps the woodcutter, and goes on his way, laughing mockingly.
The priest and the woodcutter stand dejected. The rain stops. The woodcutter reaches to take the baby from the priest. The priest recoils, and the woodcutter shakes his head, looking very hurt. He explains: "I have six kids of my own. Another one wouldn't make a difference." The priest recognizes that the woodcutter is basically a decent man, ashamed of his petty theft. He apologizes for his mistrust, and thanks him, because now he feels he can keep his faith in man. The priest hands the baby to the woodcutter. They bow to one another, and the woodcutter turns. The priest follows him to the steps of the gatehouse, and the two bow to each other again. The woodcutter leaves, walking into the sunlight. He is looking happy.