The Third Murder 三度目の殺人 Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda (2017)

The Third Murder    The Third Murder Film Poster

三度目の殺人Sandome no Satsujin

Release Date: September 09th, 2017

Duration: 124 mins.

Director:  Hirokazu Koreeda

Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda (Screenplay),

Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Koji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose, Yuki Saito, Kotaro Yoshida, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka,

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This film from Hirokazu Kore-eda feels like a departure from his usual interests of family dynamics because it is an exploration of the Japanese justice system but it still features his familiar interest in the atomisation of Japanese society.

Set in the snowy northern island of Hokkaido, this is an almost coldly analytical tale of a public defender taking on what should be an open and shut case and discovering that the truth is hard to pin down and that those who mete out justice sometimes aren’t interested in truth at all.

Shigemori (Fukuyama) is an elite lawyer who has been given the task of defending a man named Misumi Mikuma (Yakusho), an ex-con only just released from prison after serving a term for a murder he committed in 1986. Misumi has been arrested and charged with murdering the manager of the canning factory he works at. Misumi seems guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt because he was caught with the victim’s wallet and has confessed to the murder. A violent background, circumstantial evidence and confession. That is enough to warrant the death penalty. Shigemori has been drafted in to save Misumi.

With no real material evidence linking Misumi to the scene, Shigemori figures he might be able to get Misumi’s death sentence reduced to a prison term. All he needs to do is figure out some mitigating circumstance and get Misumi to change his confession. Cynic though he may be, Shigemori is a good lawyer and has spent his career mastering the legal system to win cases regardless of the moral rightness of the clients he defends. He still plays by the rules and so he goes on the hunt with colleagues for clues to firmly establish his case but the more Shigemori investigates and the more he talks to Misumi, the less certain he becomes of the man’s guilt and the case itself, not least because Misumi keeps changing his story.

As the case becomes muddier it turns out that the truth may lie with the daughter of the murdered manager, Sakie (Hirose), a seemingly innocent school girl with connections to Misumi, who reveals dark aspects of her home life and her mother and father’s characters which adds yet more twists in the case as Misumi denies and confirms various facts and offers contradictory statements. Variations of the truth multiply as Misumi offers slippery explanations that don’t add up and even talks to tabloid newspapers and ropes in the victim’s ex-wife as an inciting factor which makes Shigemori become ever more torn over how best to save his client.

You don’t need understanding or empathy to defend a client.

Justice, if you imagine it as a hard border separating good from bad, suddenly becomes confusing and porous as it is examined through the myriad of mitigating circumstances and morals that emerge from confessions and interviews held by Shigemori. In between, characters ponder over whether society creates criminals or if it’s human nature in lengthy discussions and even the lead protag’s father becomes a key figure as it turns out that the old man was the judge that gave a lenient sentence to Misumi in the 1980s murder case and, as Misumi’s background is investigated, various social ills that lead to murder are uncovered.

Condemning a person to the death penalty opens up a whole can of issues. All mitigating circumstances in every new confession given by Misumi are plausible and thanks to the script daring to create grey areas we wonder if he should be executed as the death penalty looks like the worst form of punishment, not least because of the way that the justice system is portrayed as rules and formalities used to keep society tidy. It culminates in an outrageous scene where we understand that justice can be rigged to be a matter of convenience rather than truth and that Shigemori had contributed to it with his cynical attitude in the past and he realises this too late. Or maybe, just in time for his own relationships with his friends and family. Far from being a murder mystery, The Third Murder becomes a criticism of the death penalty and how it is truly problematic.

With the investigation comes a lot of travelling and Kore-eda’s film features landscapes and camerawork that show off the snowy landscapes of Hokkaido which look spectacular. It is unlike anything previously filmed – Kagoshima and Fukuoka have been the furthest south as seen in Kiseki while Kanto is his typical landscape with Tokyo – Nobody Knows –, Yokohama – Still Walking – and Kamakura – Our Little Sister providing backdrops. Kore-eda captures part of Hokkaido’s culture with small bars and restaurants making locations that add some flavour.

As the narrative winds its way through multiple theories, Shigemori’s priorities switch over the course of the film and the audience gets to enjoy watching the actors play off each other. As I wrote with the film After the Storm, there’s something about the eyes of actors that relays everything you need to know about a character and this film is a one-two punch between the performances of Koji Yakusho and Masaharu Fukuyama as their personalities hold sway over the story.

Masaharu Fukuyama portrays characters who could be considered “elite”. The rich patriarch in Like Father Like Son, he defined that role with ambition and discipline mostly through rigid body language and his flinty eyes. Cool, crisp and sharp is how I would describe him. A masculine ideal where one demands control. This allows a performer like Lily Franky and his slacker persona to really excel. Koji Yakusho, who has worked with most of the great modern directors like Juzo Itami (Tampopo), Takashi Miike (Thirteen Assassins), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure) and Tetsuya Nakashima (director of the still totally mind-blowing film The World of Kanako), runs circles around the fixed persona of Fukuyama’s character with his warm eyes that exude a certain sparkle and madness even as his softly delivered words contain lies, hopelessness and rage. He knows more than the man assigned to protect him and, despite being as sympathetic as he can make himself, he remains a moral quandary that holds the audience’s attention to the end.

Kore-eda frames the two men in typical ways and edits their conversation with standard shot-reverse-shot techniques that uses the glass of the interview room to hold reflections and, as the case grinds on and Shigemori gets sucked deeper into it, Kore-eda imposes the images of the two men onto each other to show just how much of an effect it has on Shigemori as his notions of justice are shaken, their eyes meeting and holding so much energy.

There is also the wonderful Mikako Ichikawa who took the lead in the utterly charming Rent-a-neko who essays a functionary of the justice system and then there is Suzu Hirose, the eponymous little sister in Our Little Sister, who acts as mediator.

Through numerous interview with his client where the dialogue twists and turns, and lots of investigating and private time, we see Shigemori ride waves of doubt, both moral and professional as he tries to direct the case and it becomes a fascinating intellectual experience rather than a visceral one which we may be more familiar with from Kore-eda’s ouevre. Almost coldly analytical but with enough humanity thanks to the actors, this is a quietly critical look at the Japanese justice system.

2 thoughts on “The Third Murder 三度目の殺人 Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda (2017)

    1. Thanks.

      It is one of those films where it finishes and you may be left unsatisfied since you are in such a fog in the story that you have to concentrate on what Koreeda shines on the screen to light your way. The more you follow that light, the more the fog clears and it becomes an interesting film to venture through with what it says about society. I think it marks yet another film where he is critical of the state. That’s just my reading.

      And yes, you’re right about that scene, Just perfect.

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