The men walk along the river. It is night. In the distance, the lights of the city glimmer. The man walking behind raises his arm, brings it down again, hard. A muffled sound of impact. The man in front goes down. The man behind – the murderer – hits his victim again.
Once he is done and his victim is dead, he sets fire to the body and watches the flames.
This is how The Third Murder begins. As may have become clear to the director’s fans: this is not your usual Kore-eda.
The Third Murder departs from director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s earlier films, both in subject matter and in tone. The warmth and gentle touch in evidence in many of the director’s films is gone, replaced by a forlorn chill. The cast of characters also doesn’t immediately make the film look like a Kore-eda production: many of his works feature families with children, and few directors are as good as Kore-eda at casting and directing young children, but while The Third Murder also portrays some key familial relationships, its strongest focus lies on adults, namely the man accused of murder, Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), and his team of lawyers – in particular Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), a man too experienced to be an idealist like his junior colleague yet not as jaded as his older partner.
While the genre of the legal drama is a familiar one, its specific expression in The Third Murder may seem strange to Western audiences: Misumi has confessed to the crime from the first, his legal team isn’t trying to get him off, they are instead charged with convincing the jury that while Misumi is a murderer, his motive wasn’t base. Did he steal the man’s wallet as an afterthought or did he plan to rob the victim from the first? In Japan, and in particular because the accused already served time for two killings committed thirty years earlier, the answer to these questions means the difference between imprisonment for life and the death penalty.
It doesn’t make the lawyers’ job easier that Misumi does not seem particularly interested in avoiding the harshest punishment, nor that he keeps changing his story, the only constant being his admission of guilt. His stories don’t match up. Did he bring the fuel to burn his victim or did he return to the factory to get it? Did he take the wallet first or only after he had splashed his victim with petrol? The stories become more melodramatic: did he act at the behest of the victim’s wife, who was set to receive a considerable sum from the insurance? And what was his relationship to the man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose)?
The more Shigemori investigates and the more he talks to Misumi, the more he begins to doubt his client’s words. Even the apparent fact at the centre of the case, Misumi’s supposed killing of his boss, is called into question. Is it as Shigemori’s father, a retired judge, argues: criminals these days no longer take responsibility for their actions, and Misumi’s evasions, half-truths and lies are a way for the man to lie to himself about his culpability? Or is he instead acting to protect someone else, namely the victim’s daughter, as a way of assuming responsibility for her when he failed his own child, leaving her behind as he went to prison when she was a child?
Kore-eda’s film keeps its protagonist in doubt as much as it does his audience. We think we know what happened, though not why – but by the end we aren’t sure of either. As the film presents it, the law may have little interest in the truth to begin with – the lawyers’ primary task is to cast doubt on the accused man’s motives – but The Third Murder may go to the same well a few times too often for its own good. We only have the words, gestures and expressions of the characters to go by, none of which are reliable. (A scene early in the film has Shigemori pick up his daughter after she has committed a petty crime; her apparent remorse, underlined by a solitary tear, gets her out of the situation as much as her lawyer father, but she then reveals to her dad, more than a little proudly, that such tears are easily produced and no less convincing for it.)
At the same time, too much doubt can end up work against the story and its themes. The film offers various possibility, all of which are intriguing and dramatically engaging in the hands of Kore-eda and his capable cast, but when The Third Murder calls into question the one thing we considered a fact – what we witnessed with our own eyes at the beginning of the film – it risks us becoming indifferent to the question of what really happened. It removes the anchor that tethered its ambiguities and doubts, providing a point of reference, leaving in its place more question marks. If this apparent truth may be false, the same may be true for any and every other supposed truth. If anything can have happened for any reason, does it matter what actually did happen, and why?
Postscriptum: For the record, I have a fairly strong opinion on who is the actual murderer, based on the film’s structure and the way it visualises its alternative explanation. Nonetheless, when it cast doubt on its own premise, I found myself disengaging from the film because I no longer had much reason to trust it. Even films that throw their audiences for a loop must play fair unless they want to risk becoming arbitrary – and while The Third Murder doesn’t quite go that far, it ended up engaging me considerably less than any other Kore-eda film.