The device of different characters presenting different versions of the same event is less interesting than the reasons why their presentations are different. The fact that a camera is subjective should be obvious to anyone with a passing interest in film. What bears thinking about is the different subjectivities behind what the camera reveals (and conceals).
So why don't we take each version in turn. First the bandit Tajōmaru, who confesses to killing the samurai and seducing his wife. Tajōmaru is a free spirit, aroused by the winds, swinging his sword in the same way he swings his dick (the film is not subtle about drawing the parallel). His story is one of derring do, and he casts out this attitude onto the other characters. In his universe, the wife is a wilful defender of her interests – she tries to fight him off, and lays down the gauntlet of the duel. The samurai fights honourably, but both him and the wife are defeated by Tajōmaru's superior prowess. He remains unbeaten, and is laid low by a freak accident of nature.
The wife presents herself as a victim of Tajōmaru's depredations and her husband's coldness. She does not set up a duel between the two men – Tajōmaru simply leaves. She is so dutiful that she frees her husband and begs to be killed so she does not have to live with the shame of her rape. When he refuses in disgust, she loses her mind, and kills him almost by accident. She then tries, and fails, to kill herself. Throughout, she shows herself to be feeble, weak-minded, and a failure – perhaps hoping the appearance of a docile and repentant femininity will garner the sympathy of the court.
The samurai's story is delivered through a medium (which is ridiculous, although the film just about manages to overcome this – mainly because the actress is rather unsettling in the role, and because of the eerie effects put on her voiceover). The samurai is betrayed by an unfaithful wife, who asks Tajōmaru to kill him and free her from an unhappy marriage. The bandit is disgusted, and instead frees the samurai – both are bound together in condemnation of womankind. In the end, the samurai is brave enough to kill himself, even though he is plunged into hell for the misdeeds of others.
The impartial observer of these events, the woodcutter, undercuts the male bravado of the previous tales. Tajōmaru falls in love with the wife, who scorns and mocks him and her husband for being too weak to win her with their swords. She sets up the duel, which is pusillanimous and shambolic. There is no glory in the encounter – in the end the woodcutter sneaks out to steal the valuable dagger that has been left behind. Male virility and heroism turns out to be so much pathetic boasting.
It is interesting that the three each confess to being the agent of the death – the bandit out of pride, and the couple as a way of showing themselves to be more noble than the other. The marriage – which looked so perfect when we first see it, proves to be built on mutual resentments, which Tajōmaru's assault brings to the fore.
Whether this is enough to tip us into an apocalypse is arguable. Rashomon is a burnt-out husk of a place, ravaged by war, famine, banditry and natural disasters. The dregs of humanity seek shelter under the barrage of natural and moral evils. Kurosawa's interest in the lack of moral certainty, and the inability for human beings to agree on the truth, suggests a preoccupation with the crumbling of national solidarity in post-war Japan. But again, this is less interesting than the interplay of jealousy, resentment, vanity, desire and violence that structures the incident at the centre of the story. It is those psychological revelations that make the film a great piece of work.