Film - The Third Murder

In cinemas from 23rd March, Ren Zelen reviews the evidence of The Third Murder...

Writer/Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Kôji Yakusho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka, Suzu Hirose, Yuki Saito

Dealing with the problematic unearthing of truth and the fallible administration of legal justice, Kore-Eda’s new film The Third Murder (original title Sandome no satsujin) is a departure from the humane family dramas (Nobody Knows, Still Walking, I Wish, Out Little Sister, After the Storm) he is best known for.

The Third Murder is a complex legal drama about a jaded lawyer’s struggle to discover the actual events that led to a homicide, and the slippery nature of people’s perceptions.

Veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho plays Misumi Takashi, who is shown at the beginning of the film in a deserted riverside spot at night, apparently bludgeoning a man to death, then setting fire to the victim’s body. Misumi has willingly confessed to this violent crime.

State defender Shigemori Tomoaki (Fukuyama Masaharu) is asked by one of his associates to join the team for Misumi’s defence. The case would seem to be cut and dried – one of murder and robbery. Misumi is, moreover, a previously convicted killer who has already spent 30 years in prison for a double murder. The lawyer Shigemori also happens to be the son of the now retired judge who considered Misumi’s case 30 years previously.

Misumi is now back in jail, having affirmed that he robbed, killed and burned the body of his former employer, a much-disliked manager of a food-canning factory. Despite grounds for clemency due to the fact that he has freely confessed to committing ‘the third murder’, because of his prior convictions, Misumi will almost certainly get the death sentence.

It is the task of the defence team to try and get the sentence reduced to life imprisonment. Shigemori realises there is no material evidence against his client other than this confession, and that if he can persuade Misumi to say something different, some extenuating circumstance might induce the court to reduce the sentence.

Shigemori is much more interested in manipulating the law and winning his case than in unveiling the truth, but once he begins to gather information to support his stance - after interviewing his client and the victim’s family and trying to piece together his case - he finds that the evidence becomes increasingly less trustworthy. Misumi’s story seems to change with each new revelation and Shigemori realises that creeping doubts are beginning to bother him regarding the authenticity of Misumi’s confession of guilt.

Shigemori and his legal team find, for example, that Misumi has given an interview to a tabloid newspaper, claiming that the victim’s wife persuaded him to kill her husband in return for a share in the life insurance. An incriminating email and a mysterious deposit into Misumi’s bank account might support that story, but likewise may also indicate that Misumi was blackmailing the victim over the illegal mislabelling of cans of food produced in his factory.

Then, the victim’s 14 year-old daughter (Hirose Suzu of Our Little Sister) comes to them with crucial evidence which offers mitigating circumstances regarding Misumi’s motives for killing her father. However, as with all the information the team gather, it is never entirely clear how accurate this may be.

Witnesses prove to be unreliable or self-motivated - in the absence of tangible proof, the evidence for what happened resides solely in the testimony that people give. In the end, it boils down to believing what they say…or not believing it. Misumi’s own answers are vague and non-committal, his motive unclear, and we are left to wonder why the seemingly gentle Misumi would withhold the truth from his own lawyers.

As the facts refuse to reveal themselves and the various stories supersede each other, against his own impulses of detachment, Shigemori becomes driven to unveil the truth. The conflict between him and Misumi, who remains elusive about what happened, becomes more surreal.

The tension of the interview-room face-offs between Shigemori and Misumi reveal the experience and deft hand of a sophisticated director. The striking cinematography achieves imagery which reinforce the themes of the film. Sometimes there are telling close-ups of the faces of the antagonists, or Kore-eda’s camera will linger on just one, while the reflection of the other is superimposed over his in the security glass, indicating how these two have begun to interact and influence each other’s perceptions.

It would be unlike Kore-eda’s to give definitive answers to questions - a certain degree of moral ambiguity is fundamental to his work - he deals with the complexity of human nature.

When asked in an interview about being compared to Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda answered - “I of course take it as a compliment... I try to say thank you. But I think that my work is more like Mikio Naruse (a Japanese director of working-class dramas) and Ken Loach.”

Capital punishment is still on the statute books in Japan, amid growing calls for its removal. The Third Murder may be read partly as a critique of the death sentence and of a legal system which prefers to safeguard its own interests rather than administer actual justice. The film however, is more ambiguous than that – it veers from the certainty with which it starts and leads both the audience and Shigemori toward a (literal) crossroads of ambivalence.

Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2018 All rights reserved.

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Images - ©Fuji Television Network