You can call Hirokazu Kore-eda a lot of things: pretentious, navel-gazing, somnolent, repetitive, poetical and astute is just a handful. “Genre master” is most definitely not among them. Regardless of this minor hurdle, Kore-eda dips his toes into Lumet territory for his latest, The Third Murder. Even if you can conjure a marriage between Kore-eda’s signature deliberate, piercing, languid aesthetic and the conventional beats demanded of a murder mystery you wouldn’t be able to entirely capture the essence of Kore-eda’s raggedy examination of the truth as we see it. Existing fans will be baffled; those expecting a more traditional Japanese thriller (The Snow White Murder Case, Memoirs of a Murderer) will be bored. But somewhere in the middle is that cluster of viewers that will fall for the film’s engrossing mystery and mesmerising storytelling.
For his first foray into pulp Kore-eda is fortunate to have the inimitable Koji Yakusho (13 Assassins) as his lead. Everyone’s favourite hangdog salaryman plays Misumi, a recently released felon who promptly confesses to murdering his boss at the small factory he works at. Coming off a 30-year sentence for double murder in the 1980s, it’s simply a matter of whether Misumi gets slammed with a life sentence or is executed. Because yes, they still do that in Japan — much to public chagrin. Enter Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama, Like Father Like Son), Misumi’s gentlemanly but slick, vaguely ambulance-chasing lawyer, whose job it is to ensure the former. And it’s at this point the film really takes off.
It would be easy to simply lump The Third Murder in with courtroom dramas like 12 Angry Men because of the format, but in realty it cleaves just as closely to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon as anything else. Like Kurosawa’s classic, Murder is first and foremost a dissertation on how we perceive and parse the truth. The crime the narrative pivots on is almost irrelevant. As soon as Shigemori starts plotting his defence, Misumi starts throwing wrenches (yes, multiple wrenches) into the works. His story changes from moment to moment, and day to day. He’s evasive, non-committal, claims he can’t remember details and sometimes that he doesn’t even know the details. He sabotages himself by giving a paid interview to a tabloid with a wild story about murder for hire. Then later drops bombshells about abused children and corporate malfeasance. It muddies the waters and keeps everyone off balance — viewer included.
The Third Murder takes its share of cues from gumshoe mystery cinema, and Kore-eda — who also wrote, produced and edited — has great fun dangling information in bits and bobs, shaping and reshaping Misumi’s narrative as he goes. But he does it in a very Kore-eda way. His typical philosophical meandering, usually in service of examining the state of the Japanese family like he did in After the Storm and Like Father, Like Son, gives the genre elements a more reflective spin than the expected “Aha!” revelations. There are no scruffy overworked cops or private dicks with cheap whisky in the bottom drawer here. Fukuyama’s (whose performance is, thankfully, way more Like Father than it is execrable Manhunt) Shigemori is well put together, meticulous and professionally calculating. His assistant Settsu (Kotaro Yoshida) runs the office for him with precision. The law is a tool to be wielded with strategic ends. So when Misumi starts messing with that worldview, Shigemori loses his footing.
The central set piece (pieces?) is the Scandinavian-style glass and concrete prison interrogation room where Shigemori and Misumi meet and where the line between the two blurs as time goes on. It’s the flashiest display of Kore-eda’s distinct use of imagery and it’s really where the director starts to draw the parallels between the two men, both emotional — Shigemori is compelled to contemplate his rocky relationship with his own teen daughter when Misumi introduces Sakie (Suzu Hirose), the dead man’s sexually abused daughter — and literal: Shigemori’s retired judge father presided over Misumi’s first trial. Are the men the proverbial two sides of the same coin, whose circumstances diverged just enough to put the on different life paths? Which one is the “better” man? What is the third murder, the factory boss or Misumi, at the hands of the state? In the end the film’s wondering nature identifies it as unmistakably Kore-eda; the themes may be explored through a courtroom but they are the same ones of truth, perception, the crushing weight of Japanese social expectation and familial connection Kore-eda’s built a career on. The Third Murder may be something of a directorial experiment, but it’s the kind of experiment Kore-eda should try more of.