The Third Murder (Sandome no Satsujin) (2017)

The Third Murder (Sandome no Satsujin) first published by RealCrime Magazine

“You don’t need understanding or empathy to defend a client,” states defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama). “You’re not going to become friends.”

Shigemori is currently defending fifty-something Misumi (Kōji Yakusho) on a murder charge. In the opening scene of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder, we have seen Misumi bludgeoning his former boss with a wrench, and then setting fire to the corpse by the Tama River. Misumi had decades earlier served time for a double-murder for which he was spared the death penalty by a judge (Isao Hashizume) who, by coincidence, is Shigemori’s father – and Misumi confessed to the present crime shortly after being arrested. So the case seems open and shut, and the best for which Shigemori can hope is to reduce Misumi’s sentence from death to life imprisonment through legalistic niceties 

The case turns out to be a lot more complicated than it first appears, involving Misumi’s relationship with the victim’s wife (Yuki Saito) and daughter (Suzu Hirose) and with his own estranged daughter, and presenting us with a figure who seems strangely resigned to his fate, and barely bothered by a legal process that might easily end in his execution – at least until he finds himself in a situation where playing the court’s game could help somebody else whose problems are less prescribed than his own. As calm, enigmatic Misumi keeps changing his story, or having his story changed in the interests of judicial convenience and economy, Shigemori starts wondering where the truth lies, and whether his client is a wily deceiver, a judge and executioner in his own right, or even a Christ-like martyr. 

The Third Murder is a film of confrontations, showing how inadequate a court of law is for accommodating and adjudicating the sort of tangled issues – sociopolitical, even philosophical and theological – that have governed Misumi’s life and left him with a justified sense that his agency is limited. All this is regularly punctuated by scenes in which Shigemori confers with the polite but unforthcoming Misumi in prison. These scenes are marked by opposition, as the two men – both errant fathers, both from Hokkaidō, but divided as much by class and circumstance as by the protective screen between them – face off in a confrontation that conceals no less than it reveals. Yet as the film progresses, Misumi’s face, reflected in the glass, becomes superimposed over Shigemori’s own – a smart piece of framing (from DP Mikiya Takimoto) that marks the understanding, empathy, even close identification, developing between them. Perhaps, after all, a lawyer and a client can become friends.

  Misumi may be the one on trial, but Hirokazu is also interrogating the workings – often arbitrarily formulated, even prejudiced – of the Japanese justice system, and its slippery relationship to the higher notions of fairness and truth which it is supposed to serve.

© Anton Bitel