Heibei (Tatsuya Nakadai), the son of a wealthy land-owning lord, comes home after being injured in Japan's war in Manchuria in 1932. He is crippled, with a lame leg that has left him with a severe limp and requires him to use a cane or crutches to walk. At the lavish coming-home party his father throws him, Heibei takes note of Sadako, an attractive servant girl and daughter of one of his father's tenant farmers. Sadako loves Takashi, brother of another tenant farmer, who is still fighting in China. Heibei doesn't care, and when Sadako refuses his advances, he rapes her.
Takashi comes home from combat just in time to find out that Heibei has taken Sadako's virginity. Meanwhile, his father browbeats Sadako's father into handing her over in marriage, lest he lose his land. Takashi and Sadako decide to run away together, but at the last second he backs out, believing that Sadako will be happier as the wife of a lord.
He is wrong. Instead, Heibei and Sadako are left in a bitter, loveless marriage. The story follows them over 29 years, as they punish each other, their hate spilling over into the lives of their three children.
- Abusive Parents: Sadako hates Eiichi, her Child by Rape. His mother's hatred for him turns Eiichi into a sullen teen who gets into fights, and that's before he finds out the truth about his conception.
- Arranged Marriage: A pretty horrendous one, as Sadako is forced to marry her rapist, and spends 29 years hating him.
- As You Know: A lot of this in a scene where young Sadako is asked questions like "When is your Takashi coming back?" to make clear that she has a boyfriend who is still away at war.
- Attempted Rape: Sadako and Heibei's marriage gets more dysfunctional in 1944 when, with Takashi again away at war, Heibei brings in Takashi's wife Tomoko as a servant. Heibei and Tomoko start to form a bond, until he tries to rape her too. Tomoko manages to escape.
- Child by Rape: The unfortunate Eiichi, conceived when Heibei raped Sadako. She can't get past what happened and love her son, until it's too late.
- Defiled Forever: So says Sadako, who tells Takashi "I'm damaged goods now." He doesn't agree.
- Driven to Suicide: Eiichi, burdened with shame after discovering he was a child of rape, commits suicide by throwing himself into the local volcano.
- Evil Cripple: Heibei limps around pitifully, and usually has to use crutches to get around. He's also a rapist and a bastard.
- Indian Burial Ground: Sort of—it's not an Indian burial ground. But village folklore holds that the bad luck Heibei's clan has experienced is due to their estate having been built atop an old burial ground with a thousand corpses. Sadako and Heibei's second son Morito does some research and finds out that this is basically true: Heibei's ancestor was a peasant farmer who betrayed his fellow peasant farmers when they revolted. The ancestor was rewarded with the land in the valley, and the family home was built atop the burial ground of the other peasant farmers.
- Interrupted Suicide: Sadako throws herself into the river, only for Takashi's brother to fish her out.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Heibei and Sadako go off to Takashi's home, to share their mutual forgiveness with Takashi before she dies.
- Rape as Drama: Heibei's rape of Sadako ruins both their lives and damages their children.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: This film, made in Japan, is scored from beginning to end with Spanish flamenco music, guitar and castanets. The singing is in Japanese, however.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: An unusual case in which the emphasis is not on the star-crossed lovers but the relationship the woman gets stuck in. Still, Takashi and Sadako are this, loving each other all their lives, even as Sadako suffers with Heibei and Takashi winds up in a loveless marriage of his own. Late in the movie they commiserate over their mutual grandson, calling him the child they never had.
- Time Skip: The story is told in five discrete chapters: 1932, 1944 (Heibei and Sadako in a bitter marriage, now with three children), 1949 (Eiichi finds out about his parentage), 1960 (Sadako's daughter marries Takashi's son), and 1961 (Heibei and Sadako have a cathartic moment as Takashi is dying).