Slow-burning, insightful Japanese legal thriller – The Third Murder (Film Review)

Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese filmmaker internationally renowned for the Jury Prize-winning Like Father, Like Son (2013) and critically acclaimed After the Storm (2016), returns with another slow-burning but deeply affecting release The Third Murder. This time, he turns his narrative attention to that of a legal battle, exploring Japan’s approach to the judicial system through a complex puzzle of twisted ideologies and contradictions. Defence attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his team of lawyers are tasked with a deceitfully simplistic case: previously convicted murderer Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) has confessed to another brutal killing of bludgeoning, burning and robbing his factory boss. Imprisoned for three decades for previous crimes and only just released, it appears Misumi is incapable of rehabilitation. But, as Shigemori begins to delve deeper, he unravels elaborate reasonings for the seemingly senseless killing.

Initially, it appears Misumi murdered his factory boss to receive a hefty payout of life insurance from the disgruntled wife. Scenes later, we discover the boss was sexually abusing his daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), with Misumi discovering and murdering the disgraceful man to protect the young girl – taking on the role of a surrogate father, after being abandoned by his own child. Then, yet again, another twist reveals Misumi had no involvement at all and merely covered up Sakie killing her father to protect the child from having to testify in court. The death penalty, a controversial subject in Japanese culture, is philosophically explored through the characters’ difficulties in dealing with fundamental questions of mortality; are people born into an unchangeable set of circumstances, can people behave as a Judge of others, is it possible someone should have never been born?

Misumi’s persona is one of mystery; superbly acted by Yakusho, he responds to Shigemori’s interrogation in the suffocating interview room with an air of frustrating indifference and contradiction, his stories continually altering between denial and acceptance. Fukuyama is the perfect antithesis, with Shigemori’s perception of morality slowing unravelling to reveal inner turmoil and confusion apparent in every delicate facial expression. In fact, the ensemble cast is faultless, with the different character’s each revealing varying levels of commitment to the sides of the law.

If you’re looking for definitive answers in response to the complex questions The Third Murder presents, you won’t find easy solutions to them in the film’s denouement. In fact, we’re given the necessary components in understanding the case but are left to discover our own resolutions between what’s right and wrong. But both Shigemori and audiences’ inability to ultimately decipher and separate truth from fiction in this bizarre case mirrors the subjective nature of the law itself; no one can ever really completely know the truth, surely, for what is truth itself? Accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s moving piano and executed with stunning symbolic cinematography, pictured above in the film’s closing shot, Kore-eda’s film is a rewarding portrait of life’s most important questions and is a pleasure to watch. It may not be as exciting as the sensationalist procedural films churned out by Hollywood studios, but it is a far more effective and satisfying experience for those patient enough to absorb and interrogate its questions.

Dir: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Scr: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Suzu Hirose, Kōji Yakusho, Yuki Saito, Kōtarō Yoshida, Shinnosuke Mitsushima

Prd: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Taguchi Hijiri

DOP: Mikiya Takimoto

Music: Ludovico Einaudi

Country: Japan

Year: 2017

Runtime: 124 minutes

The Third Murder is in selected cinemas today.