Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda appears to be getting more famous internationally with each passing film: from Nobody Knows to Like Father, Like Son, and I Wish to Shoplifters, English language audiences are growing increasingly fond of his particular blend of emotional resonance, behavioural insight, and intimate drama. Largely missing from Western audiences, however, is his 2017 drama The Third Murder. It is something of an anomaly in Kore-eda’s recent career, since it eschews his usual focus on families to present a troubling and atmospheric legal thriller.
Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a defence attorney assigned to the case of Misumi (Koji Yakusho), a factory worker who has murdered his boss and burned the body. Misumi’s guilt is not in doubt – he has admitted committing the murder already, and previously spent 30 years in prison for a separate homicide. Escaping the death penalty will require Misumi’s motive to be made clear – but the killer keeps changing his story.
The Third Murder is not a legal thriller in the typical vein, in which a dogged lawyer fights against the clock to prove their client’s innocence. Instead its focus on less on ‘who’ and ‘what’ and more on ‘why’. It does not even ask the questions expected from that perspective: why Misumimurdered his old boss is not as relevant as why his motives even matter. Kore-eda paints a picture of a legal system where the truth is less important than a believable narrative. For Misumi the difference between life in prison or execution comes down to whether he murdered a man to steal his wallet, or murdered the man and then stole the wallet as an afterthought. The latter suggests a crime of passion, which brings greater leniency than motivated theft. It is the defence approach Shigemori desires to take, but which is becoming increasingly difficult as more evidence and testimony come to light. It is an uneasy process to watch, suggesting quite strongly that truth is irrelevant to justice.
A secondary theme running alongside is that of failed fathers. Both the murderer and the victim had teenage daughters coping with disability, and both of them suffered deeply as a result of their respective fathers’ actions. Meanwhile Shigemori’s dogged obsession with his work has already cost him his marriage, and now threatens his relationship with his daughter – who acts out and commits petty crimes to get his attention.
As is typically the case, Kore-eda assembles an immensely talented cast to bring the film to life. Particularly effective is the relationship between Shigemori and Misumi. Koji Yakusho is particularly effective in the latter part. He seems remarkably calm for a man on death row, and oddly polite and conciliatory for someone who has committed two murders. Fukuyama plays Shigemori in a wonderfully restrained and bottled-up fashion, so that when his emotions do play out they feel doubly powerful.
The film looks fantastic, thanks to Mikiya Takimoto’s artful Cinemascope photography – this is the first time Kore-eda has worked on a film in this format. It also sounds tremendous thanks to Ludovico Einaudi’s moving Hisaishi-esque musical score.
It would be easy to overlook The Third Murder for failing to have the depth of character or considered behaviours of Kore-eda’s other major films. Certainly this seems to have been the case with its international distribution. To do so, however, would be to overlook the atmosphere and suspense that this film brings to the director’s work. It is a slightly atypical work for Kore-eda, but in all honesty that just seems to make it more valuable.