There shouldn't be much to the murder trial. After all, the murderer has already confessed. The prosecution is pushing for the death penalty, though, after as much as guaranteeing the defendant Misumi they wouldn't if he just says he did it. His current attorney in over his head, new counsel is pressed in to do what can be done to make sure Misumi only spends the rest of his life in prison.
The new attorney Shigemori is barely interested. He resents being brought in to the case when it's already set to go to trial. Misumi was only two years out of prison, having been sent away for 30 years for a double murder. The film opens with the murder, and we explicitly see Misumi beat his boss's head in with a wrench, douse him in gasoline, then set him on fire.
This is not the sort of scene one expects at the beginning of a Hirokazu Kore-eda film. Perhaps the pre-eminent contemporary Japanese filmmaker on the international art scene, Kore-eda is probably most famous for Afterlife (1998), a curious but deeply moving film about a group of people deciding on the memory they want to take with them as they move on from this earth. Last year's After the Storm was a gentle family drama about a father who resented not quite being good enough to maintain his family, and the son who just wanted to spend time with him. He's been compared to Ozu, the Japanese classical master of family dynamics. But Ozu's movies are defiantly sedate; he had worried that his masterpiece, Tokyo Story, lapsed into melodrama because at the end, something actually happened. Incident was not Ozu's métier.
Kore-eda does not shy away from incident, and in The Third Murder the entire plot revolves around, as do all courtroom dramas, a particular incident: the titular murder. Misumi is an aggravating client for Shigemori - his statements are inconsistent, and he doesn't seem particularly interested in his own defense. Neither, initially, is Shigemori. His approach to the defense is more about form than investigation - he doesn't want to seek out Misumi's long lost daughter because the court won't reimburse the travel costs. Even when he delivers a note from Misumi to the victim's family, he resents the cold reception, when the grieving widow tears up the note: "These days, victims think they can get away with anything.”
His initial strategy is simple: he wants to argue his client had a grudge against his victim, who recently fired him, and didn’t do it to rob him. The former could get him life in prison, the latter executed. Doesn’t matter whether it makes sense, it’s how the law works. A middle-aged female secretary and a young junior lawyer act as a sounding board for Shigemori’s ideas: the secretary is all layman’s knowledge, the young lawyer is all idealism, and is somewhat appalled that Shigemori cares more about legal strategy than the truth.
This dichotomy, law and justice versus truth, is at the heart of the screenplay, which Kore-eda wrote. At first glance, it would also seem a dichotomy with the rest of the director’s work, which draws intensely to the personal. Most of his output are family dramas. A courtroom mystery would seem to be the least likely to interest him. However, I still see a continuity with his other work here. While Kore-eda mentions in the press materials that he was attempting to adopt a crime-movie style of cinematography here, it is a light gloss over his usual, deeply naturalistic style. The camera rarely moves, except in subtle dollies right or left while a scene is being set. While there isn’t as much of an emphasis on humor in The Third Murder as in his other films, it peeks through in the scenes of personal observation that might have become broad (or ignored altogether) in another director’s hands. Misumi’s deep love of peanut butter, which gets its own scene, or Shigemori’s father’s teasing flirtation with the secretary have the touch of humanistic observation that Kore-eda specializes in. It’s just that here, they are in service to a plot.
That plot revolves largely around Shigemori’s reluctant identification with Misumi, as he becomes more and more invested in finding out just what did happen in this murder. He finds parallels between himself, the murderer, and the murdered: all three are the fathers of daughters, all estranged through various means. There’s a scene early in the film that is central to its theme: Shigemori is called to pick up his daughter at a store, where she was caught shoplifting. What she stole isn’t directly evident; it may have just been a candy bar. Shigemori presses the shop owner not to press charges, shows him his card so he knows he’s a lawyer, and tells the shopkeep that he has been so involved in this case that he hasn’t been home lately. That’s a lie: he’s going through a divorce, and lives completely apart from his daughter. When he says this, she sheds a single tear. It’s a deeply affecting moment; but when he asks her why she was crying, she immediately brings out the waterworks again. “People always fall for it”.
What’s the truth? Was she manipulating the store-owner, and her father at the same time? Can she bring up tears so quickly because she’s a little trickster, or is there a well of sadness from her estrangement that she can tap in to when she acts out? Are the tears the lie, or their explanation?
It’s nearly impossible to know the truth, and the more Shigemori comes to realize that the shakier he becomes in his strictly legalistic defense of his client. Revelations about the victim, his relationship with his daughter, and possible criminal dealings in his business further confuse him. This growing identification is shown less in dialogue than in subtle camera compositions through several interview scenes. Misumi is on one side of a clear plastic divider, and Shigemori is on the other. As the lawyer’s confusion grows, the division between the men begins to fade. And as he begins to understand and believe a truth hidden somewhere in Misumi’s contradictory stories, he begins to find that his integrity as a man, and the legal strategies on which his career depends, become incompatible.
Typically for Kore-eda, the acting in The Third Murder is top notch. Shigemori is played by Masaharu Fukuyama, who previously worked with Kore-eda on Like Father, Like Son (2013) and his portrayal of a man reaching the end of a rope he didn’t know he was even dangling from is masterful. Koji Yakusho, probably best known to American audiences for his charming star turn in Shall We Dance (1996) and a regular star of my favorite director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure, Pulse, Tokyo Sonata) is mesmerizing as Misumi (a performance which won him one of the film's six Japanese Academy awards), a most unlikely and matter of fact murderer.
The Third Murder's penultimate scenes deal with revelations in the courtroom, similar to many a courtroom drama - but they aren’t the point, and they barely affect the outcome of a justice system more determined to maintain its dignity and reputation than uncovering the truth. It’s not a movie about the injustice of the justice system, or railing against the death penalty. It’s about, fitting in with the rest of Kore-eda’s work, the very human difficulty of discovering the truth. Not justice, and not the facts, not only who did what, but why. It succeeds as a crime film, as a suspenseful courtroom drama, but most of all as a human drama of two men learning to understand each other, both at great cost.