No two perceptions of actuality are identical. The greater the magnitude of the actuality, the greater the discrepancy, the greater the distortion. This is the subject matter of Rashomon. Ellipsis is inescapable.
The events are (1) a travelling couple, a man and wife, are accosted by a bandit; (2) rape of the wife by the bandit; (3) death of the man. Each of these three provide a version of the events, the dead man through a medium. This last is particularly remarkable because the medium is female, thereby speaking in another dimension than that of the past, and thereby emphasizing that the persistence of a perception endures beyond the grave. These three versions are presented independent of the two framing devices, namely the three additional, partial versions, and, secondly, their telling in a driving rain at Rashomon, a ruined, medieval city gate of Kyoto.
The three partial versions are given by a woodcutter, who has seen some of the events, but may also be a liar, an opportunistic thief, and who is perplexed by the irrationality and incompatibility of the three complete versions, yet who is altruistic; a priest, who has seen none of the events, but has heard hearsay of the personality of the raped woman, and, though weak and confused, yet who still believes in a fundamental good in men; and, a police agent who captures the bandit. An additional character, a commoner who acts as a questioner, who takes shelter at Rashomon from the ceaseless rain with the woodcutter and the priest. The woodcutter and the priest are aware of three complete versions because they attend their telling in the police court. In each of the three tellings, the woodcutter and priest sit cross-legged, wordless, and impassive, in the upper right of the frame of the image; it is uncannily effective in the mute simplicity of its inclusion.
The sense of absolute accuracy of perception can, nonetheless, by questioned. The questioner, however, has his own attributes of immorality, and, consequently, self-justification, which is itself a cognitive dissonance. The inability of people, because they are weak, to tell the truth requires that they lie. The lie becomes self-deception. But perception is not a lie. The actuality of events and their subsequent interpretation are not the same thing. The consequence for the society in which people live thus becomes irrevocably clear.
The film does not attempt a reconciliation of these conflicting versions, nor does it attempt to provide a solution to the perceptual conflict; because neither, in actuality, can be realized.
Throughout the film, Kurosawa pauses, as interludes of light play upon the landscape. Their intense naturalness makes them both moving and beautiful. But what is real: the light, the shadow, the land, or what we choose, or chose, to see?