The Third Murder (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Hirokazu Kore-eda recently won the 2018 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his latest film, Shoplifters, receiving mainstream media attention from many outlets for the first time. Those familiar with Kore-eda’s catalog already understand that this prolific director makes films that are unflinching and empathetic explorations of the human condition and spirit, celebrating and exposing our best intentions as well as our most deprived. Kore-eda crafts characters like the greatest of novelists, dynamic, complex and irreverent, often focusing on the contemporary family in all of its messiness. A filmmaker not afraid of exploring extremes, I Wish (2011) is a whimsical celebration of laissez-faire parenting and childhood adventure, while Nobody Knows (2004), is based on a true and tragic story of child abandonment.

With The Third Murder, I anticipated finding out where in Kore-eda’s oeuvre it fits in. By now, it’s cliche for film critics to compare Kore-eda to Yasujiro Ozu. Both directors are masters at examining the dynamics of families in Japanese society, but as he’s stated, Kore-eda’s influences are wide and culturally and artistically diverse, whereas Ozu is arguable the penultimate Japanese filmmaker of the 20th century and was notoriously retrograde in an aesthetically delicate way. The Third Murder goes in a new direction. Its main characters are not fighting conflicts within the family unit but are the products of socialization when family ties are only superiously bound together.

The opening scenes of The Third Murder establish the central conflict of the narrative, a confusion of muddled perspectives and obscured truths over the murder of a factory owner by his employee. Shigemori Tomoaki (Masaharu Fukuyama), is a lawyer tasked by his elder colleague to take over the case of representing Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on charges of robbery and murder in which he confessed to the police, a certain death penalty case. In Japan, judges in cannot sentence the convicted to life in prison without parole, so a “life sentence” always includes the chance for parole. Misumi’s narrative of the crime is Rashomon-esque, but not as different perspectives from different people but as multiple perspectives within the same person.

The lawyers are neither paragons of justice or truth-seekers but flawed characters themselves. With the statement, “you don’t need understanding or empathy to defend a client,” Shigemori belies his inexperience in the social science of the legal profession, that to understand the motives of the accused a skilled lawyer also need to understand vagrities of the human psyche.

Those in the legal profession may cringe at yet another portrayal of a gauche and mostly incompetent attorney that saturate television and films, but Kore-eda is consistent in his portrayal of all classes and professions in Japanese society as the imperfect individuals. What Kore-eda says about the justice system and the obscurations of truth is a part of the realist social criticism of the film.

The victim’s wife, Yamanake Mitsui (Yuki Saito) represents another layer of culpability, but while The Third Murder clocks in at two hours, her dark underside and abhorrently broken family is hinted at but not fully explored. Suzu Hirose plays her young daughter, Sakie, a contrasting role from her previous in Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister (2015).

The denouement of film begins with a gripping flashback to the crime scene and ends with a scene between Misumi and Shigemori. The shots that balance the relationship between them in a text-book perfect example of symmetrical equality, transforming their relationship from the vertical to the horizontal. The symbolism of the birds, of love and sacrifice, is all the more creative because no bird is ever seen, the subtlety of imagination becomes powerful than the seen. The tension builds as the plot twist hints at deeper web of abuse and violence. Yakusho plays Misumi in a rather deadpan, matter of fact manner that leaves the audience confounded about his true intentions and truth until the very end.

The theme of disorientation of those who lack a moral grounding, a sense of stability in their personal lives and relationships, along with the questionable social institutions that support a community, is one that unites Kore-eda’s films. Starkly, the question of what is the purpose of someone’s life if they never should have been born is poised to Shigemori.

The Third Murder is Kore-eda’s most psychologically charged film, a philosophical thriller, focusing on two persons, the accused and his defender, whose fates are tied by circumstance, rather than the shared connections between family, friends and community. It’s a drama that may be viewed as something of an aberration in his catalog of films. While the common trope in his films of a young person who, due to family circumstances, is wise beyond their years is present here, those who appreciate the enthusiasm, the joie de vivre of his most scrappy and youthful characters will find little that is cheerful in this picture. This film instead is a critical look at institutions, both public and private, and festival goers who are open to a more cynical side of film will appreciate the realist perspective that Kore-eda has bravely offered.

The Third Murder is showing on June 30 at the New York Asian Film Festival.