There are so many views as to the “point” of Rashomon or what stands out most about it that it nearly seems a pointless enterprise to discuss it. The camera work is remarkably novel; Kurosawa’s hiring of Kazuo Miyagawa worked oh so well, with these tracking and panning shots that baffle the mind. During certain shots, the camera seems to be moving in every direction at once. Rarely is movement confined to x, y, or z axes, especially in the forest scenes. Of course the interrogation scenes use the opposite technique: an Ozu-like stationary camera at tatami level. Only the horizontal seems to be emphasized in these shots, with multiple planes existing at any given time. It’s been noted that the camera’s refusal to give the viewer the reverse shot (of the judge/questioner) signifies that the audience stands in the place of the judge. However, the film gives an overall priority not to the “real story,” but both to the lack of a real story and the necessity for human goodness in a dark world.
Here is where the debate resides, though little time will be spent addressing it now. Despite the usefulness of Stephen Prince’s, Keiko McDonald’s, and Donald Richie’s studies of the film, it again seems to be Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto that offers the most reasonable and well-balanced understanding of it. He points out details of note without overemphasizing their weight. For example, there seems to be a theme of the number “3” in the film: three physical locations (the gate, the forest, the court), three principal characters (the woodcutter, the priest, and the commoner at the gate; the bandit, the samurai, and the samurai’s wife in the forest), a three-day period of time between the court and gate scenes), and the three Chinese characters on the gate (transliterated as “Rashomon”). Also, Yoshimoto notes not only the use of horizontal and vertical space, but the juxtaposition between the two. Though the forest scenes contain horizontal movement, it is the vertical that is emphasized, with shots directly at the sun, shots from below the characters, and the verticality of the trees.
The film has been accused of sentimentality, and here seems to be Yoshimoto’s strongest point. The response to this allegation is a resounding admission, but with qualifications. Critics who have pointed out Kurosawa’s narrative nostalgia almost universally point to the film’s ending with the woodcutter adopting the abandoned child after the commoner has stolen the baby’s blanket. The melodramatic presence of a baby is amplified by its narrative location (at the film’s end) and its didactic purpose (countering the moral vacuum in which the film’s characters live). Yoshimoto adeptly observes, though, that exaggeration by the actors’ performances begins right at the film’s beginning. It’s with repetition, gravitas, and utmost sobriety that the woodcutter and the priest lament the state of the world and humanity when they repeatedly proclaim, “I can’t understand it…I have never heard anything as terrible as this before.” The viewer’s interest is arrested, most likely to be disappointed by what constitutes something so “terrible.” To be sure, in a better world, this narrative would be an awful thing to hear. Accustomed as we are to horrors on a daily basis, a few mistruths revolving around a murder have become commonplace. But this is beside the point. The sentimentality that closes the film is different in neither degree nor kind than that which opens the film and guides the diegetic narrative along its course. This makes the film coherent on its own, even if it presents a world of overreactions and overstatements. The woodcutter’s lost faith in humanity is well-founded, but his active steps toward goodness and compassion reject cynicism and embody a Kierkegaardian ethic. When the world seems devoid of truth and beauty, what else is there to do but create truth and beauty through promoting life? Sentiment conquers sentimentality.