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Film Review: The Third Murder

22 May 18 words: Natalie Mills

Tease your brain with a Japanese legal drama exploring morality and capital punishment.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Kōji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose

Running Time: 125 minutes

Murder mysteries have satisfying endings where you find out whodunit, right? The Third Murder is more Dostoevsky than Agatha Christie, leaving you with a kind of cerebral indigestion. Is it justifiable to murder people sometimes? Does the Japanese legal system and threat of the death penalty work? Do lawyers ever go home to eat and sleep?

Kore-eda’s slow-burning legal drama weaves a web of fabrications and unanswered questions. “No one here tells the truth” sums up the fateful courtroom finale, but could apply to the film as a whole.

The Third Murder starts with just that – ex-murder convict Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) battering his boss to death and setting fire to his corpse. Variations of the scene appear throughout the film, while twists and revelations leave you feeling as puzzled as his poor lawyer. It doesn’t help that Misumi keeps changing his story and is scarily calm about it all.

Shigemori (Masharu Fukuyama) is described as “the kind of lawyer who gets in the way of criminals facing their guilt”. His initial businesslike approach evolves into an almost obsessive quest for the truth. It turns out his father put Misumi away 30 years ago, but spared his life. Like Agent Cooper in an especially serious episode of Twin Peaks, he does all he can to solve the mystery. From digging up Misumi’s dead pet canaries to following the murder victim’s daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), it gets a bit intense. The power struggles and strange conversations inside Misumi’s cell stick in your mind.

Creative dream sequences, a haunting musical score and strong performances lift The Third Murder from being a forgettable crime thriller

Motives for the murder come and go, as new evidence is uncovered. Initially just “a grudge”, an ambiguous email suggests that the victim’s wife planned it for the insurance money. Then Misumi’s protective relationship to Sakie is revealed – he could have done it in revenge for her father’s sexual abuse. By the end, you’re questioning whether he even did it.

The Third Murder paints an unsympathetic picture of the Japanese legal system. When Misumi claims that the prosecution followed him to the toilet and told him “if I confessed, I’d be spared the death penalty”, you believe him. Shigemori is caught in an impossible situation; wanting the truth to prevail and his client to avoid capital punishment. Sakie is similarly disadvantaged – if she testifies about her father’s abuse, the prosecution will ruthlessly try to discredit her. Whether he’s guilty or not, it’s business as usual and the importance of being “judicially economical” is duly prioritised.

Creative dream sequences, a haunting musical score and strong performances lift The Third Murder from being a forgettable crime thriller. Flashes of colour such as Sakie's red overcoat and Shigemori's father's quirky orange cardigan stand out against a grey, corporate environment. You wonder whether Shigemori's team have lives outside of work; their comradery extends to eating and sleeping in their suits in the office. Conversations unrelated to the case seem alien.

The film asks big questions about the nature of morality, justice and self-sacrifice, while never giving us any simple answers. Is Kore-eda making a point about how different murdering someone (who arguably deserved it) is from the death penalty? Sharp, frustrating and compelling, The Third Murder refuses to be an easy watch.

Did you know? Kore-eda wanted to make a film about “what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth”. He brought together seven lawyers to stage mock interviews and trials, to ensure his script was accurate.

The Third Murder is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 24 May


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