The film follows its heroine Tome from the circumstances of her birth in rural Tohoku in 1918, through the fall of the Imperial government during WWII, up until her middle age in early-60s post-democratic Japan. Tome becomes a metaphor for the resilience of the Japanese spirit through the dramatic changes of the 20th century. The plot is arranged episodically, using freeze frames, voice over, and captions to demarcate and provide commentary on the events unfolding.
Young Tome leaves her daughter in the care of her step-father following a failed marriage and a rape while living in her rural community, promising to send money back home so they can soon be reunited. Tome heads to work in a factory during the war years. While working in the factory, Tome experiences independence, sending money back home, becoming a union organizer, and having an affair with her married boss. The money sent home is being diverted by her extended family, leaving her daughter Nobuko and beloved step-father exiled to the barn and destitute.
In order to make more money, Tome becomes the maid for a Japanese woman, Midori, who has set up house and had a mixed child with "George," an American G.I. during the 50s. Tome, distracted by the sounds of Midori and George making love, does not notice the child Cathy approaching a large pot of stew on the stove. Cathy accidentally knocks the pot over, badly scalding herself and later dying. This tragedy causes Tome great guilt, and she joins a new Buddhist cult called the Jodo Church to rid herself of her "sin of Carnal Desire."
Ironically, while at Jodo Church, Tome meets Suma, a church elder and the proprietor of an "inn" that is really a front for a brothel. Tome begins working for Suma in Tokyo, innocently as a maid, and quickly is manipulated into becoming a working girl. Suma betrays Tome by refusing to help pay for the hospital bill Tome incurs to take care of an etopic pregnancy she "developed" while working for Suma. Years later, Tome has an opportunity to turn informant on Suma, exposing the illegal brothel to the cops, sending Suma away for two months.
In the interim, Tome turns the working girls against Suma, offering them better terms to come work for Tome, and she sets up an outcall service of her own, with the support of a powerful patron, Mr. Karasawa. Tome is successful for a few years, until she herself begins the swindling, victimizing and manipulative habits that her former boss Suma had committed. The beginning of the end comes when Tome has a knock down drag out fight with Hanako for whom Tome had paid for cosmetic surgery to correct a facial deformity, who has been disloyal. Tome also gets her former boss, Midori, in her roster of call girls.
Meanwhile, the daughter Tome has left back on the farm is of age, and has come to Tokyo to visit. She wishes to borrow money from her mother (who has plenty of it) to join a farming collective back home. Her mother stalls on the loan, having lent Mr. Karasawa a large sum to start a business. Tome gets arrested because she goes back home to attend her step-father's funeral and her girls have turned informant on her. Tome gets a one year sentence. Her girls jump ship and Mr. Kawasawa takes up an increasingly obsessive sexual relationship with Nobuko, promising to let Nobuko "work off" the amount she wishes for her farming venture.
Tome is released from jail, finds out the betrayal of her lover/patron Mr. Karasawa, asks for her money back, is refused, and warns her daughter about her intanglement with Mr. Karasawa. Nobuko echoes her mother's empty promise back to her: promising to send money back to her mother after the farming venture is successful, so they could finally live together. Mr. Kawasawa does not want to let Nobuko go, but she tricks him into giving her part of the money upfront, and she runs out on him.
Mr. Karasawa turns to Tome to help him get Nobuko back, and Tome makes a trip back home to reclaim Nobuko. Nobuko, however, pregnant with the baby of her farm collective colleague, gleefully tills the land in a big tractor. The last scene is of Tome in kimono, sludging through mud with broken geta and dirty tabi, walking into the mountains.