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Original title: Sandome no satsujin

D: Kore-eda Hirokazu / 125m

Cast: Fukuyama Masaharu, Yakusho Kôji, Hirose Suzu, Saitô Yuki, Yoshida Kōtarō, Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Matsuoka Izumi, Ichikawa Mikako, Makita Aju

An apparently disgruntled ex-employee persuades the chairman of the company that fired him to go with him to the side of a river at night. There, the ex-employee, named Misumi (Yakusho), kills the chairman and sets light to the body. Misumi is arrested and charged with robbery with homicide (the chairman’s wallet is found on him). Misumi confesses to the crime, though when his initial lawyer Settsu (Yoshida) brings in a hot shot lawyer called Shigemori (Fukuyama), Shigemori begins to have doubts about Misumi’s confession and what actually happened when the chairman was killed. Soon, the chairman’s wife, Yamanaka (Saitô), and his daughter, Sakie (Hirose), are revealed to have things to hide, while there are echoes of a previous crime committed by Misumi thirty years before when he killed two debt collectors. In the run up to the trial, Misumi’s story changes at various times, making it difficult to get at the truth of what happened, and making it difficult for Shigemori to mount a good defence. With his client obscuring matters at every turn, Shigemori finds himself almost desperate to learn if Misumi is really guilty or truly innocent…

A legal drama-cum-thriller, The Third Murder isn’t quite the riveting experience you might hope for – its pace is too slow for that – but it is a compelling examination of the Japanese legal system, where the accused’s guilt or innocence isn’t as important as getting the charges right (or sometimes, the wording of the charges). Of course, the complexities of the Japanese legal system don’t seem like a viable basis for a legal thriller, but in the hands of Kore-eda (who spent several months observing lawyers carrying out mock trials in order to write the screenplay), they form the bedrock on which the wider story is told. With Kore-eda showing us the murder right at the start, and making it clear that Misumi is responsible, doubt is sown through the exploration of the circumstances leading up to the crime. Some of Misumi’s story appears contradictory, and circumstantial evidence appears to paint a potentially different story. And when the chairman’s wife and daughter appear to have colluded in their own separate ways with Misumi, his motive for the murder becomes less straightforward than it had at the beginning. With the narrative shifting at random, the truth – whatever that may be – becomes something that’s slippery and indistinct.

Kore-eda assembles the various layers of Misumi’s story with a great deal of skill, and puts particular emphasis on the scenes where Shigemori visits Misumi in prison. Thanks to Kore-eda’s skill as a director, and Fukuyama and Yakusho’s committed performances, these scenes are less a battle of wits and more a battle for understanding on both sides. There’s a genuine emotional heft to these scenes, and the final confrontation between them sees Kore-eda overlay their heads in a shot that highlights just how important their relationship has become to them. As already mentioned, the movie is slow-paced, but effectively so, and there’s a melancholy feel to much of the material that suits it. The movie looks tremendous as well, thanks to Kore-eda’s decision to shoot in the CinemaScope format, something the writer-director hasn’t used before. As a result, Takimoto Mikiya’s cinematography is often absurdly beautiful to look at, especially when Shigemori and his assistant, Kawashima (Mitsushima) visit the snow-covered area where Misumi committed his first two murders. There’s much more to enjoy, including a fine, understated performance from Hirose, and a subtly emotive score from the under-used Ludovico Einaudi.

Rating: 8/10 – perhaps not everyone will be enamoured of Kore-eda’s latest feature, but The Third Murder sees him on very good form indeed, and creating an intelligent and challenging movie that doesn’t go out of its way to explain everything that’s happening; with its themes of trust and culpability running throughout the movie and affecting how the main characters behave, this is absorbing stuff indeed, and well worth watching if you’re in the mood for something a little different.