The Third Murder opens with a scene shockingly explicit and direct for Hirokazu Kore-eda: Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) beating a man to death by a riverbank with a wrench. The initial blow happens right in front of the camera, blood sprays onto his face, and a vicious intensity is found in his strikes that seems almost completely alien to those familiar with his previous work. Barely 12 months ago, lest we forget, Kore-eda directed a family drama set in the midst of a typhoon, yet whose on-screen tension and intensity never once threatened to rise above a light breeze. Here, we have a character burning a body within the first 90 seconds, and shot in legitimately cinematic-looking Cinemascope, no less!
Despite startling appearances, however, this opening is sort of a fake-out. The Third Murder is a legal drama, with a murder-mystery at its centre, constant forward momentum, an actual narrative, and legitimate attempts at cinematography; all things that Kore-eda has largely avoided in his quietly storied career up to this point. But The Third Murder is still, down at its core, a Hirokazu Kore-eda movie in mood, in pace, in its meditative and often insular nature, and in quality. Despite its twisty narrative and a courtroom-bound second half, arguably the loudest that the film gets besides a mid-testimony witness breakdown comes when one character is carefully reprimanded for pushing too hard at questioning a rape survivor during a pre-screening. Kore-eda does not do big flashy drama and, though he does fall into the occasional hokey trap as the film winds down, he’s managed to make The Third Murder work to his specific whims despite it still feeling like nothing else in his filmography.
To wit, that opening act of violence constitutes Misumi’s titular third murder, although we don’t find out about the previous two murders and the circumstances behind them until later. Instead, we are introduced to Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), a lawyer who has had the job of defending Misumi’s high-profile murder case dropped into his small firm’s lap without much of a say in the matter. Misumi has already confessed to the charge, so now it’s up to Shigemori to try and get the jury’s sentence during the eventual trial down from the death penalty to something altogether less damaging for his reputation. However, not only is that tricky due to Misumi’s past conviction and a grieving widow (Yuki Saito) unsurprisingly not taking Misumi’s handwritten letter of apologetic repentance, Misumi keeps changing his story, seemingly on a whim every time Shigemori goes to visit him. And the further that Shigemori digs, the more complicated the situation turns out to be, with the slowly revealing truth, and its parallels to himself and his life, threatening to take every possible avenue to a non-death sentence off the table.
“You’re the kind of lawyer that gets in the way of criminals facing their guilt.” That’s an observation made by the unnamed prosecutor to Shigemori at the first legal meeting between the two sides and she later clarifies that someone facing their guilt means “not averting [their] eyes from the truth.” He simply laughs at the entire notion of “the truth” before departing, since Shigemori has clearly been around the block for long enough to know that “the truth” for a lawyer is merely whatever story he thinks sounds best to the jury. It’s why he’ll contest the “burglary” part of the “murder, burglary, and corpse mutilation” charges by changing it to “theft” based on technicalities, it’s why he’ll admit context-free text messages that present theories of conspiratorial intent when presented in a certain light as evidence, and it’s why his slow uncovering of the truth actually makes his job harder because, in this case, the truth does not come in a neat, black-and-white, easy-to-sell package.
Shigemori’s job sucks, and if he seems somewhat amoral throughout the start of The Third Murder, well… yeah, that’s because he is, but not only does he get stuck in a near-impossible position as the film rolls on, he is a man of certain principles. His constant fights against death sentences often appear borne not just out of a desire to win and keep his reputation as a lawyer of skill and repute intact, but also out of a belief that nobody ever truly deserves death. A belief that runs counter to his father – a former judge, Akihisa (Isao Hashizume), who coincidentally presided over Misumi’s original murder trial, sentencing him to 30 years, and now feels partly responsible for the latest killing as a result – and a belief that is greatly challenged by the severity of the truth. As the case drags on, it slowly becomes evident that not only is the morality of the facts irrevocably grey, but that the most painless solution available will involve erasing that truth from the record entirely. Shigemori is being pulled in many different directions, but due to the nature of his work, no matter what he does, the criminals will not face their guilt and it will be his fault.
This is a heavy film; the lighter tonal breaks and simmering optimism that characterise Kore-eda’s films like After the Storm and Our Little Sister nowhere to be seen, with a relentless cynicism underpinning proceedings brought upon (justifiably) by the lose:lose events of the film’s narrative. But with that said, The Third Murder doesn’t feel like that much of a departure from Kore-eda’s previous work, even as one deals with the spectacle of Kore-eda scripting and directing a film that actively wants to look and feel like an actual narrative feature. After all, After the Storm’s Ryota was a mess of contradictions and frequently strained viewer sympathy by being such a pathetic deadbeat, but Kore-eda never stopped getting the audience to empathise with him and his situation, and the optimism that Ryota may finally attempt to actively better himself as the film ended was tempered by the knowledge that it’s not the first time he’s made such a claim.
That’s always been Kore-eda’s trick. He is, at heart, an optimistic filmmaker with the empathetic touch of a talented storyteller, but he’s not naively so. When the world of the film beats that optimism down enough, he’s not afraid to let the consequences show. He’ll hope for the best ,and try to find the hope in all situations, but he won’t force it and he’ll temper it when past history calls into question the veracity of that outlook. In other words, he’s a realist and The Third Murder merely represents the first time in a long while where the cynical half of a realist’s perspective is given predominate focus. Even with more on-the-nose dialogue than one might be used to with him, this is still a Kore-eda film at heart and in mood. It’s simply that the meditative and insular mood and presentation he typically applies to personal domestic dramas has now been transposed onto a legal drama about the subjective presentation of truths, morality over the death penalty, deeply-entrenched shame, and ignored abuse. Heavier subject matter equals a heavier viewing experience, and the strong performances that typify a Kore-eda film – particularly Yakusho’s cryptic yet constantly sympathetic turn as Misumi, and Suzu Hirose’s painful work as the daughter of Misumi’s victim – have thankfully made the jump between genres with aplomb.
However, venturing outside of one’s niche will involve some growing pains, and The Third Murder bears those marks in a few respects. The mystery is far too easy to guess, for one; I figured it out within 30 minutes, others will be able to guess it far more quickly than that, and it doesn’t help that Kore-eda’s script keeps pulling too much focus on those narrative points with big neon THIS IS INFORMATION YOU WILL NEED FOR THE REVEAL signage. Relatedly, his attempts to draw parallels between Misumi and Shigemori end up being more than a bit too blunt and self-conscious, particularly as they start piling up in the film’s second half. Whilst one could largely brush these drawbacks off due to the film otherwise working on tonal and thematic levels, as well as the fact that none of these stopped the reveals and dramatic beats from affecting me strongly enough, they do bely Kore-eda’s comfort with more episodic and vignette-based forms of storytelling than the direct kind he’s practicing here.
Still, The Third Murder is a gamble that largely pays off. It sees Kore-eda not only branching out of his niche formally and tonally, but it also finds him asking incredibly difficult questions and not shying away from the sinking feeling of upset and disheartenment that results from those answers. As much as one could attempt to read it as his play for more mainstream acceptance, and does stumble somewhat in its venture into more straightforward narrative storytelling, the results still manage to feel like the work of Kore-eda even as it on the surface comes off as the antithesis of his prior work. It’s an impressive outing for one of our most quietly impressive directors working today, demonstrating a willingness to keep pushing himself without losing what makes him so distinctive in the first place. In a story where so much is said, it’s befitting Kore-eda that the parts that devastate most involve those things which remain unsaid. Those who turn their eyes from the truth, and those who have to face their guilt from responding to that turn.
The Third Murder will receive a limited release in UK cinemas on 23 March.