Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Stars: Kōji Yakusho, Masaharu Fukuyama, Suzu Hirose
It’s hard to believe I’ve never gotten around to reviewing a Hirokazu Kore-Eda film on here before, seeing as the man is responsible for some of my favourite films of recent years. A Japanese modern master frequently compared – with genuine credibility – to Yasujiro Ozu, Kore-Eda’s cinema often focuses on minute familial dramas with a gentle air of gracious humanity.
I wanted to cover The Third Murder on its UK release in selected cinemas, however the list of venues was a little too selective. This week, however, the film has made its debut on bluray under the Arrow Academy umbrella, and I was able to get caught up.
The Third Murder represents a change of tone for the director, on the surface seeming to drop the domestic inquiries of his recent films in favour of a colder, contemplative take on the crime drama. Masaharu Fukyama gives a stirring performance as Takashi Misume, a man awaiting trial for murdering his boss, burning the body in a bonfire. Misume has admitted his guilt, and lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Kōji Yakusho) is brought in to assist the defense counsel. The best they can hope is for the judge to forgo the death penalty in favour of life imprisonment, but Misume keeps changing his story, repeatedly placing Shigemori’s strategy on the back foot.
For much of the first two acts (until Misume reaches trial), The Third Murder in essence plays out as a police investigation, though cops and detectives are sidelined and the lawyers are doing the probing. These are the workmanlike inquisitions of a hundred or a thousand other procedural pictures, but Kore-Eda handles them well. His downplayed approach shows confidence in the material (his own script); detective stories endure because their machinations are inherently fascinating. As Shigemori grows more involved in his pursuit of the truth, a new kind of Kore-Eda family drama emerges.
The victim’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), walks with a pronounced limp, and Shigemori finds himself tailing her, intuiting, perhaps, that she may provide missing pieces of the puzzle. He tracks her as Kore-Eda’s camera does, mimicking the director’s own fascination with day-to-day activities that might be dismissed as humdrum, but from which a kind of poetry can be extracted. With her father gone and her mother awash with grief and hostility, Sakie has a vacancy in her life, and the film manages to insinuate both Shigemori and Misume as surrogate father figures. This despite minimal scenes of contact between the lawyer and the girl and none at all between her and the incarcerated suspect.
Recognisable for his tremendous use of light, Kore-Eda begins the film in pitch darkness. The first light provided is from a fire which sears the screen white-hot, colouring the face of our suspected murderer. Fire mixes with water; elements in contrast, and the film unfurls. As it does so, and as Misume’s story keeps changing, it asks us can one murder be more excusable or less severe than another? Shigemori is in search of a true motive, but every one offered up by his discoveries casts the crime in a new light. The defense team are desperate for the best bargaining position, drawing examination of how, exactly, one act of violence is coloured by context.
The contemplative tone echoes that of the recently voguish Scandi thrillers, and their broad influence feels imprinted further on the film during a scenic detour to a snowbound town and a few brief flashbacks. Elsewhere, the film feels an American influence, not least thanks to the courtroom drama elements of the narrative, but also in the architecture. Shigemori’s offices are located in a red brick building that isn’t emblematic of the modern Japan we’re often presented with, and would look more fitting, perhaps, in a Californian 1940’s noir.
Said office also exhibits another new iteration of the Kore-Eda family. A small practice with a staff of four, including Shigemori, the operation is close-knit and friendly. The building feels lived in and the informal interactions of the group suggest lived-in bonds.
The question of what is deserved weighs heavy on the film. Ever the humanist, Kore-Eda’s position here is unsurprisingly against the death penalty, even if some of his characters vocalise in support. Truth and context prove malleable, until it becomes entirely conceivable that Misume might not even have been present at the murder. This will not do.
In presenting his film in this way, Kore-Eda makes damning statements about the bureaucracy of the Japanese criminal justice system, suggesting that adhering to an official narrative is of higher value than obtaining the true story of events.
Though subdued for its entire 124 minute running time, The First Murder bubbles with questions for the viewer to mull after those credits have rolled, and reaches an emotional apex during one of the (many) scenes to take place between lawyer and defendant with sheets of plexiglass dividing them. Kore-Eda holds on an angle that layers Misume and Shigemori on top of one another for so long that one can no loner tell which is the reflection. Instead they appear to both be apparitions. Ghosts merging into one another.
Kore-Eda’s prior run of films are cosier and easier to find love and reassurance in. I can hardly wait to see his latest, Shoplifters, which scooped the Palme D’Or at Cannes this year, bolstering his already venerated name. Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister remain my personal favourites of his recent run, but The Third Murder is a fine indication that his talents are open to mutation even if his obsessions remain the same.