Kore-eda and The Third Murder


AUGUST, 2018


The director of humanist, thoughtful films, the self-titled Ken Loach of Japanese cinema,  Hirokazu Kore-eda has moved on to murder in his latest The Third Murder.

His previous work has largely been centered on broken families, and taken a child’s point of view – its no accident that Arrow Academy have released a box set of 3 of his films, entitled Family Values.

His breakthrough on the international stage came with Still Life in 2000 – where dead people have to pick one happy memory to replay through eternity. While this has produced some very emotional and self-examining reactions in audiences, it sounds to me, based on a faulty premise that all lives are made up of a few “great” moments, amongst the everyday. I think for most people, lives are a daily thing with small pockets and moments of joy. But then, I haven’t seen the film.

His 2004 work Nobody Knows – based on a real-life case – is something I can recommend though. It is a simple, unfussy work about a 12 year old bringing up his 3 younger siblings, after their mother has done a runner.  There is no Hollywood reconciliation with lessons learnt, and no adult saviour. It is just a steady depiction of kids trying to do the best they can – which is what makes it powerful.

His subsequent films have, according to critic Tony Rayns, become increasingly melodramatic. While I can agree that they often have a little sugar  added, they are still worth watching. And After the Storm – as a study of a damaged father-son relationship, is an excellent work.

The Third Murder – given its title – appears to fit neither the pattern nor the Oeuvre of Kore-eda.

The film opens with the murder, so its not a whodunit. Hot-shot, self-confident lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi on the murder charge – the case seems fairly doomed, since Misumi has already confessed to the murder, so Shigemori’s job is to try to get him life in prison, instead of the death sentence.

IMDB decribes the film thus:

Misumi has a criminal record dating back many years and is now under the spotlight again. It looks like an open and shut case, for Misumi has confessed to the new charge. Enter prominent lawyer Shigemori, who harbours other ideas, which could mean the difference between life and death.

Which sounds like the introduction to a thriller-type film form a very anti-thrills director. But Kore-eda being Kore-eda, what ensues is an anti-thriller, and a realist and thoughtful examination of all the colours and shades of guilt, as much as it is a strong case against the death penalty – which is still handed down in Japan.

The film isn’t really a Court Room drama or legal procedural either. From what I learnt of the Japanese Court system, that would be a non-starter as drama, since it appears that in Japan the judge makes all the decisions along with a panel who defer to him, and the Court just rubber stamps that. Suffice it to say the Japanese Court is different from the Western experience, and with a lot less drama and tension about the outcome. It is however a study of objective truth, and the fallibility of any justice system that has to guess who is telling the truth, when very few murders actually have someone who witnessed the act.

The Third Murder is very much Kore-eda back to his more realist earlier work; it is a measured thoughtful unfolding of a murder, several lives, and  the damage families can cause.