Three men hear four different versions of how a woman’s husband was killed in the woods after she was raped.
At an ancient gate during the rain a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) tells a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) a horrible story. He was going into the forest with an axe. He finds a dead body and runs to the police. A witness sitting next to the captured bandit Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) says he found the bandit thrown from the horse as retribution; but Tajomaru says he got off the horse to rest.
Tajomaru admits he killed the man. He tells how he saw the woman Masako (Machiko Kyo) on a horse, and he wanted her. He runs after them. Tajomaru offers to sell the samurai Takehiro (Masayuki Mori) a sword and other items he found. He leads him into the woods and then fights him. Tajomaru goes back to the woman and says her husband was bit by a snake. He takes her to Takehiro, who is tied up. She gets a dagger and attacks Tajomaru. He plays with her, and she cries. When Tajomaru kisses her, she drops the knife. After he has her, she says that he or her husband must die. Tajomaru cuts him loose and gives him a sword. They duel. Tajomaru laughs frantically and kills him.
Tajomaru says that she was gone, and he did not try to find her. The priest says he found the woman in a temple, but her story was different. Tajomaru leaves her with her husband, who looks at her with hatred. She pleads with him and cries. She cuts the rope and tells him to kill her, but he just stares at her. She says she fainted and woke to find the dagger in his chest. She says she tried to drown herself.
The priest says that the dead husband told his story through a medium (Fumiko Honma). Through her he says he is in darkness. Afterward Tajomaru consoles her and asks her to go with him. She agrees but tells Tajomaru to kill her husband. Tajomaru throws her down and asks her husband what he should do with her. She runs off, and Tajomaru follows her. Hours later Tajomaru comes back and says she got away. In the quiet the husband stands up, cries, picks up the dagger, and stabs himself.
The woodcutter says he was killed by a sword. The commoner asks him to tell what he saw. The woodcutter says that Tajomaru was begging her for forgiveness and to marry him. She cuts her husband free, but he refuses to fight for her. She cries and then scorns both men. She laughs, and they duel in fear. Tajomaru loses his sword, and later the husband loses his too. Tajomaru gets his sword and kills him. The woman runs away from him.
At the gate the commoner says that the woodcutter lied. The priest despairs because people cannot be trusted. A baby is abandoned, and the commoner takes an amulet. The woodcutter accuses him of stealing. The commoner asks him where the valuable dagger is and laughs. The priest holds the baby, and the woodcutter offers to raise the child with his six children. The priest says he still has faith in people. They bow, and the woodcutter leaves with the baby.
This classic drama depicts human relativity by giving four different versions of the same events. Because people tend to lie to themselves each story shows the teller in a more favorable light. Only the version of an outside observer depicts the tawdry truth. Yet even he, who is kind enough to raise a seventh child, does not admit he stole the dagger.