Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese director behind such acclaimed humanist works as Our Little Sister and last year’s After the Storm (read our review here), turns his hand to courtroom drama in The Third Murder, a legal mystery with serious political bite.
The film opens, elegantly and elegiacally, with a murder. A man walks down by the riverside, followed by another man called Misumi (played by Kōji Yakusho), who smashes him over the head with a hammer. The body is set alight. Set to peaceful piano music, and filmed with a meditative slowness and composure, the scene’s obvious horror is cut with, and undercut by, an eerie beauty. It’s a fitting set piece to open a film which seeks to doggedly interrogate the complicated morality of murder, truth and consequence.
Some short time later, crack lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is asked by a friend to be part of Misumi’s legal team. Misumi had already provided a full confession to the police investigators, albeit one littered with inconsistencies. As Shigemori navigates the inner workings of the Japanese legal system and tries to fend off the likely death penalty for his seemingly contrite and mild-mannered client, he finds himself groping for the truth of the situation amid a system where ‘truth’ is rarely more than a piece of rhetoric.
“The Third Murder… seeks to doggedly interrogate the complicated morality of murder, truth and consequence.”
Shigemori’s character is fleshed out and believable, and played convincingly by Fukuyama (indeed, the whole cast is roundly capable). Initially cynical in the way you would imagine a state defender to be, a sense of moral frustration and even latent idealism is teased out of him over the course of the film, mainly by the puzzling and ideologically challenging interviews he conducts with Misumi. We are offered glimpses into Shigemori’s background and home life; a two-scene interaction with his daughter is a particularly great diversion.
In the end, however, the film’s intimate humanist elements – unmistakably the director’s preferred sensibility – are mostly window dressing for the central mystery. A legal thriller with some interesting Rashomonic turns, The Third Murder is ultimately an expression of frustration: a powerful political fable about the rigidity of the Japanese legal system and the moral limitations of the death penalty.
The Third Murder directed by Kore-Eda Hirokazu is released in UK cinemas 23rd March
Image: Wild Bunch/AR.PR