The Third Murder (2018)
“People hardly understand members of their own family, let alone strangers” (Shigemori Akihisa in “The Third Murder”).
This film by an acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After the Storm” (2016), “Shoplifters” (2018)) begins with a scene of a murder in progress. A man kills his boss in cold blood and burns his body. The man – Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) – has previously been in prison for around 30 years for other two similar crimes he had committed. A legal team prepare a case, but since Misumi has confessed, there is nothing much to debate or investigate, and the sentence of death penalty looms over his head. The case of Misumi seems to be an open and shut one, or does it? When a new lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) takes over the case, he slowly begins to realise that something does not make sense in Misumi’s confession, and the centrepiece of confusion is the motivation of the killer. It also does not help that Misumi starts to change his story of what happened with an astonishing ease and conviction. In Kore-eda’s legal drama, it is interesting to uncover both personal connections to the case and the foreign legal system’s intricacies, but the quiet beauty of the picture can still be found in the slow unveiling of the truth.
“The Third Murder” may be a Kore-eda film, but there is something wrong about comparing it too readily to his other work, including to “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) and “Our Little Sister” (2015). Unlike director’s other films, “The Third Murder” is, first and foremost, a legal drama and the centre of it is the man Shigemori who at first merely decides to try to reduce Misumi’s sentence of death penalty to life imprisonment. Shigemori finds some evidence that points to the fact that Misumi first killed the victim and only then robbed him, and that means that the previous charge against the man of burglary and murder is an incorrect one, and should be reduced to a charge of mere murder and theft. Little does Shigemori know that he has, apparently, only scratched the surface of truth in this case. A part of my enjoyment of “The Third Murder” has probably to do with the fact that the film reminded me of my all-time favourite film “The Secret in their Eyes” (2009). The stories of two movies are different, but they are both concerned with the critique of a criminal justice system in one way or another – the Japanese and Argentinean criminal justice systems respectively. Both movies also have emotional components, and the lead investigators in the cases in both stories also try to achieve justice in spite of numerous legal obstacles that the legal system imposes on them time and time again.
“The Third Murder” is an intriguing murder-mystery, but it is also a philosophical study. The film is a purely Japanese one in some sense because it has all to do with subtlety and with the contradiction of something is and is not being there. Truth is malleable and depends on one’s perception and context. In a courtroom, once the truth is established, it becomes a universal truth, and, to establish truth, all that is needed is to gather sufficient evidence to support a particular fact. The artificiality of this truth creation may be surprising, but this truth creation also dictates what kind of a “justice” one will get. In the story, a victim may be a criminal, and a criminal may be a victim. So, who is who? Can they be both, in some way? The psychology may be hard to grasp, but “The Third Murder” also appears both personal and impersonal at the same time. While Kore-eda “smuggles” into this legal mystery his favourite theme, i.e., family dynamics, including father-mother-daughter relationships, he also wants us to think about big philosophical questions. In that way, while we notice that the film has three different sets of fathers and their daughters, who have some things in common, such as troubled relationships, we are also invited to think about the justifications for death penalty and whether it is right for some people to control the destinies of others.
The film plays with human psychology too in a way it asks the question why we are so determined to see complications and seek “truths” where none may exist, and believe in the good in people even when evidently confronted with the opposite. Coupled with this, “The Third Murder” is also rich in symbolism. The “bird” references are almost self-explanatory in the story, with a bird representing freedom and truth. The act of Misumi of burying one bird or setting others free may represent the different aspects of his story or different truths which he is determined to camouflage or hide. Misumi uses the symbol of a cross at graves to signify the final societal rejection or, possibly, the depth of his previous sin. The symbolism of “hands” in “The Third Murder” is more curious. Hands may be vital points of a wholesome connection between the characters, and the fact that Misumi’s hand is burned at the beginning of the story may signify that he is not ready to make a truthful pact or connection with Shigemori. This is even more evident in the story because, at one point, Misumi asks Shigemori for his hand to touch the glass where Misumi’s hand is on the opposite side, and the two hands “mirror” each other.
In fact, the predominant theme of the film is the lawyer and the accused “mirroring” each other, with both feeding on each other’s words, expectations and reality perception, and acting accordingly. Shigemori wants to find out how Misumi’s mind works and what pushes him to say something or act in a certain way. In his growing obsession with Misumi’s motivations, Shigemori completely forgets that to prove guilt (murder) (not to determine sentence or other offences) the motivation or the motive for a crime is completely irrelevant. In that way, as the lead investigator Esposito in “The Secret in their Eyes”, Shigeromi becomes too emotionally involved in the legal case and tries to read between the lines. Kōji Yakusho and Masaharu Fukuyama play against each other well, and there are certain subtle parallels between the lawyer and the accused. In turns out that it was Shigemori’s father, the judge, who sentenced Misumi to a prison term for killing two loan sharks in 1989. Both Shigemori and Misumi also refuse to confront the “truth” – for the accused, it apparently means facing one’s actions and what he did, and for his defence lawyer that entails his parental responsibilities regarding his troubled 14 year old daughter.
Kore-eda’s superior direction ensures the quality of each scene presented, while the audience tries to distinguish between a possible truth and only its impression. It is hard to resist Kore-eda’s snowy Japan, especially when it is also presented in an almost surreal way. Moreover, the beautiful soundtrack composed by no other than Ludovico Einaudi (for example, “Nuvole Bianche” used in The Spanish Christmas Lottery Advert) gives “The Third Murder” a gracefully poetic and personal touch. However, sometimes the film also takes a turn away from subtlety, is too long and does not manage to incorporate its family relationships elements into the story well. The story may dwell on a particular family dynamics with no specific purpose in mind, and then drop the subject without returning to it.
Wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, “The Third Murder” is a strangely compelling murder-mystery, which, together with a peculiar Japanese understatement and an insight into the Japanese criminal justice, delightfully subverts the audience’s expectations while playing with a number of different truths. 9/10