The Third Murder (Cert 15)

1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 125 minutes approx.

Is the justice system really the most infallible way to dictate the fate of someone based on which side of a story is believed? And what does justice mean if a critical decision is made for the wrong reasons? What value is a human life then?

A man walking by a riverbank at night is bashed in the head with a wrench, bludgeoned to death, then set alight. Convicted murderer Misumi (Koji Yakusho) has confessed to this one and is looking at the death sentence. Hotshot lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), appointed Misumi’s defence, believes he can get the sentence reduced to life on a technicality.

Through investigating the details of the case, Shigemori begins to find cracks in Misumi’s story, wondering if he is telling the truth or covering for someone else. The more people interviewed, the more conflicting the information is relating to Misumi’s story. Shigemori finds himself questioning his own moral judgement and that of the courts when it comes to Misumi’s sentencing.

Over the past two decades, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda has been synonymous with his oeuvre of family dramas, sometimes charming, often heartbreaking, but always deeply affecting. Whilst not a complete stranger to other genres (like the quirky Air Doll) Kore-eda is taking a rather big leap out of his comfort zone for this courtroom drama/murder mystery.

Kore-eda may be wandering down a darker path story wise but this is still recognisably a Kore-eda film, as though his directing it like one of his delicate dramas. In other words, the atmosphere is either quietly convivial or brimming with tension via acutely observed characters realised through unaffected yet dynamic performances from the cast.

Opening with the murder does immediately establish this is a different Kore-eda in case there was any doubt, but we soon slip into the comfortable and familiar quotidian experience courtesy of Shigemori and his colleagues, surly senior Daisuke Settsu (Kōtarō Yoshida) and earnest junior Kawasima (Shinnosuke Mitsushima).

Working with the prosecutor for the case, Shinohara (Mikako Ichikawa), she believes Misumi should face justice, lambasting Shigemori as being the sort of lawyer who prevents criminals from paying for the crimes for his own profit. Shigemori refutes this accusation but his attitude speaks for itself, with Misumi looking to be another notch on his career belt.

Misumi had recently been released from prison after serving 30-years for murder, the sentencing judge being Shigemori’s father (Isao Hashizume), now regretting his leniency for extenuating circumstances and out of sympathy for Misumi’s poor upbringing. But it gives Shigemori much needed food for thought and his investigations keep coming back to the murder victim, Misumi’s boss, and his family.

The victim’s widow (Yuki Saito) is implicated by Misumi via an ambiguous text message sent to him, the mystery of which extends to his limping 14 year-old daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose). There might be a gnarly and sinuous murder case as the central plot, but Kore-eda can’t resist bringing things back round to the theme of families again, yet this is not a case of him trying to paint the same picture on a different canvas.

Usually Kore-eda brings families together – here he goes in the opposite direction, breaking them apart. Misumi is naturally estranged from his family; Sakie’s has been shattered by her father’s murder whilst Shigemori himself is in the midst of a divorce which has put a strain on his relationship with his teenage daughter (Aju Makita).

Cleverly, every one of these situations and bitter experiences converge in unlikely ways in influencing the outcome of Shigemori’s quest for the truth, ultimately reflecting on the motivations for the resultant actions. Whether it was out of love, anger, spite or even revenge, the shared factor is a family member was the key catalyst, either inadvertent or intentional.

But there is still the matter of Misumi’s trial and Shigemori is not the only one subject to a critical lashing. When new evidence brings the trial to a temporary halt, the judge doesn’t want to restart the trail as it means he will lose face for not closing the case on time. Never mind a man’s future is at stake instead it is about keeping the judge’s profile intact, and Shigemori is not impressed by this selfishness nor his own forced capitulation to his orders.

Yet what drives the viewer mad, unlike most courtroom dramas, isn’t the case or the result, but the deliberately ambiguous denouement clouding Misumi’s guilt or innocence. One could argue we don’t need one as Shigemori has learned a valuable lesson in belief vs. the truth, and putting a value on their life beyond brownie points and cash rewards, but the twist is at what cost?

Didacticism has never been in Kore-eda’s remit and even sailing close here, the margin remains comfortably wide. Shot through a sobering lens, the sterility of the procedural scenes is offset by the electric performances of Koji Yakusho and Masaharu Fukuyama, with Suzu Hirose delivering her most mature turn to date, ironically as a 14 year-old, providing the emotional pivot on which the entire story hangs.

The exchanges between Shigemori and Misumi in prison are intensely moving in spite of their bare bones presentation – a simple sideways on two-shot with just a sheet of glass separating them; a later scene when their reflections in the glass partition slowly overlap during a dramatic face off is pure, artistic ingenuity but not incongruently flashy.

It becomes evident quite quickly that the heavier subject matter doesn’t prevent Kore-eda from attacking it with his typical humanistic sensibilities, levelheaded observations and calming atmospheres. But this doesn’t mean he avoids digging deep into the darker recesses of the human psyche and getting intense when necessary.

Fans of Kore-eda’s lighter films might take a while to adjust to The Third Murder’s sombre tone whilst those looking for a hard-hitting crime drama will find this a tad mild. Either way, this is another compelling drama from Japan’s most sublime chronicler of modern life.

 

Extras:

Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD

Japanese 2.0

English Subtitles

Tony Rayns on The Third Murder

The Making Of The Third Murder

Introduction by Cast Members

Behind The Scenes Image Gallery

Trailers and TV Spots

Reversible Sleeve Artwork

 

First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet

 

Rating – **** 

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