“The Third Murder”
An Intricate Legal Thriller
Leading attorney Shigemori takes on the defense of murder-robbery suspect Misumi who has served jail time for another murder 30 years ago. The odds for winning the case are stacked against Shigemori. His client freely admits his guilt even though he faces the death penalty if he is convicted. As Shigemori digs deeper into the case, he hears the testimonies of the victim’s family and Misumi himself. Now Shigemori begins to doubt whether his client is the murderer after all. Directed and written by Hirokazu Kore-eda, this is a complex elusive film that keeps us guessing. It is a legal thriller whose mystery trappings are something of a red herring.
We see a brutal killing in which Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) bludgeons his former boss to death, then sets the body aflame. Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), enters the proceedings late in the process, after Misumi has already confessed to the crime. The trial is expected to be swift, as Misumi murdered two men when he was younger — surely a third murder involving him can’t be coincidence.
Shigemori merely wants to reduce the charges and spare Misumi the looming threat of the death penalty. His case becomes complicated when Misumi’s story continually changes, seemingly without reason. Other evidence from the family of the murdered man leads Shigemori to question Misumi’s culpability, and whether he’s been lied to the whole time.
Director Kore-eda gives us a story that works perfectly well on a surface level as a mystery. He also interrogates the Japanese criminal courts and the ways in which they presume guilt. A key event halfway through the trial should lead to a new trial, with an untainted jury, but the judges and the lawyers jointly agree to continue with the current trial in the interest of a speedy verdict. Despite the chilly, desaturated color scheme, you can almost see a flash of outrage from Kore-eda at their disregard for a man’s life.
It’s nearly impossible to watch Still Walkingwithout thinking of the conflicts between the young and old, or the Eastern and Western cultures in Tokyo Story and Late Spring. Kore-eda returns to that mode more than any other but aligning his style with those films ignores vast swaths of his filmography. It doesn’t account for the dark social realism of Nobody Knows, the fantasy of After Life, or the utterly bizarre blow-up doll brought to life in Air Doll. Kore-eda has always been about these contradictions, and The Third Murder plays right into them.
Still, his Ozu-inspired style is somewhat present. Kore-eda’s camera often roves about, even though he occasionally leaves it motionless like the older master. He tends to push in slowly toward his characters, as if he’s an eavesdropper who has to lean forward a bit to intrude on their conversation. It creates a sense of intimacy, as if the audience is there amidst these discussions about a man’s fate, yet also turns us into voyeurs spying on the pain of others.
Fukuyama and Yakusho are both excellent in their legal wranglings. Yakusho has the tougher job, though. His accused murderer is an enigma; those who loved him are absent, and he refuses to reveal much about his life and motivations. In a lesser actor the role might have become too sinister, but Yakusho presents enough humanity for the audience to continually question his guilt. The film is mostly concerned with the ills of Japanese society and it is a moving and chilling legal thriller.
The main issue here is the value of a person’s life, and whether it should be up to the criminal justice system to decide if someone deserves to die. Though the themes are heavy, the narrative is never plodding and Koreeda offers many details to give us context in this metaphysical discussion and the increasingly unknowable nature of the crime doesn’t point the moral compass one way or another.
“The Third Murder” is shot with unusual crispness and a series of intriguing tableaus boasting clarity and layered depth in equal measure. A significant portion of the film takes place in the same small room and two actors and a glass wall offer myriad insights in these tense scenes. This is more than a film, it is an experience.
This is not a whodunit with the killing of a factory owner by already twice-convicted murderer Misumi shown to us in the very first scene, a crime then immediately confessed to by Misumi himself. Instead, his lawyer Shigemori’s aim is to avoid the death penalty as we attempt to unravel Misumi’s motives. A pathological liar, Misumi’s interrogations soon become rather frustrating despite the interesting moral dilemmas they raise, and ultimately, the conclusion doesn’t feel worth the plodding and confusing two hours it takes to get there.
This is the kind of film that will reward revisiting over years. It chronicles injustice, but it is a deeply, deeply moral film. It still examines relationships between parents and children through an undeniably humanistic lens.
Bonus features include Making-Of featurette and Messages from the Cast. The package includes excerpt from an interview with director Hirokazu Kore-eda, Why-We-Selected, and chapter breaks.