Don’t think of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder as a legal thriller or a courtroom drama. You’re better off approaching it like an ethics lecture. Not that the film is disinterested in legal matters or courtroom conflicts, per se, but little actually happens over its two-hour runtime. It’s more concerned with philosophy than theatrics. From the other side of the camera, you can sense Kore-eda’s resolve to avoid making a straightforward, plot-driven narrative where crime is committed, law is exercised, and justice is served.
Here, the division between right and wrong is as difficult to discern as the plexiglass separating defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) from Misumi (Koji Yakusho) in their attorney-client conversations. Shigemori is trying to spare Misumi the death penalty for a crime we see play out in full at the start of the movie: Misumi sneaks up behind his boss by a riverbank, bashes his brains in with a wrench, and torches the corpse. We know Misumi’s guilty. We see the attack, and Misumi confesses to it. He’s going, at least, to prison, and if Shigemori can’t work his lawyerly magic, to the gallows.
The film’s title refers to Misumi’s rap sheet. We’re informed that about two decades earlier, Misumi killed two people in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, a land of volcanoes, hot springs and ski resorts. Misumi’s offense in the film’s present tense is thus amplified by his past, and further worsened by perceptions of motive. It’s believed Misumi killed for money, and this is somehow more egregious than killing for, say, revenge. Why the distinction is meaningful at all bears mild relevance to the story at first, beyond playing a part in Shigemori’s devotion to Misumi’s cause, but eventually, The Third Murder unfolds and reveals layers of nuance.
Like Kore-eda’s best work, The Third Murder is deliberate, employing a thorough examination of every nook and cranny of its leads’ hearts. Audiences adverse to slow-burning cinema may interpret this as a pretty way of saying that The Third Murder is a bore, and they may, on watching it, prove themselves correct. For best results, recalibrate your expectations and prep for dissertations on the nature of guilt. Take, for starters, Misumi himself—unassuming, soft-spoken, a man you’d pass by in line at the post office and forget about immediately on leaving. This isn’t what a hardened criminal looks like. Yakusho’s twinkling gaze and quiet dignity suggests Fred Rogers’ Japanese counterpart. You would accept a cup of hot cocoa from him on a bitter winter’s day. You would not expect him to bludgeon a man to death for money.
But there are holes in Misumi’s account of events. He misremembers details. He changes details. Something else is afoot. Extraordinary situations influence human behavior in unpredictable, uncharacteristic ways. The Third Murder doesn’t ignore Misumi’s culpability: We can’t deny what Kore-eda shows us in the opening scenes—the barbaric finality of the swing of Misumi’s weapon and the sobering aftermath. But Kore-eda invites us to interrogate whether killing a man is such a cosmic transgression when the man in question is a monster.
As the film progresses, the audience realizes Misumi’s boss may not be so blameless. Kore-eda withholds details until later in the film, merely hinting at them early on and leading us to create an impression of the victim as a scummy, conniving capitalist. The reality is worse, and we’re ushered into that reality via testimony from his daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), and the less said on the matter, the better. The twists and turns bring a chilling clarity to the proceedings, but the film’s most effective moments remain lodged in the discussions between Shigemori and Misumi. Kore-eda has cast his leads wisely. Fukuyama, an eminent singer-songwriter and arresting thespian, paints Shigemori with hangdog reserve, ferrying him from confident to hopeless, ever melancholic as truth blurs and calls into question everything he thought he knew. Yakusho, one of the best actors out there, portrays Misumi more simply, a hollow soul who has surrendered himself to fate for reasons only he can appreciate. Together, they’re powerhouses.
The Third Murder is powered by their synergy—that plexiglass window distorts what Kore-eda shows us on screen as surely as each newly discovered piece of the puzzle warps our preconceived notions of morality. Shigemori’s face superimposes over Misumi’s, intertwining their identities, manipulating their roles in the narrative: lawyer and client, free and imprisoned, innocent and guilty. Before long the contrasts dissolve, which creates new meaning, and new definitions of justice and injustice. The Third Murder may not be Kore-eda’s best work, but the film proves a satisfying challenge, a complex exploration of sin and righteousness in an amoral world.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Koji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose, Yuki Saito, Kotaro Yoshida, Shinnosuke Mitsushima
Release Date: July 20, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.