The Third Murder: Powerful Anti-Death Penalty Courtroom Drama

Before ‘The Third Murder’ was premiered at the Venice Film Festival, early rumours trumpeted Hirokazu Kore-eda had gone all noir. Perhaps Today’s most acclaimed Japanese auteur, the filmmaker’s trademark has always been his humane and intimate look at family relationships, often with an emphasis on children and the elderly. This interest for the family has earned him comparisons to Ozu, despite seeing himself closer to more contemporary directors such as Ken Loach. That’s why this sudden turn to darker territories came as a surprise. ‘The Third Murder’ may not confirm those first impressions, but nonetheless is a significant change of register for the director who, this time, delivers a powerful anti death penalty indictment through a legal drama that explores its core murder mystery as much as its moral repercussions for everyone involved.

It all begins with the scene of the actual murder. A man in a desolate riverside area hits another man in the head with a wrench, pours oil over the corpse and burns it. Next we see the killer, Misumi, already in prison being interviewed by a team of lawyers, led by attorney Shigemori. Misumi’s case is a difficult one. Not only he confesses himself guilty of killing his current boss, evidence revealing the motive was to steal his wallet, but he was also previously convicted thirty years before of another (double) murder. All of which makes death penalty the predictable sentence for his trial. With the intention of avoiding Misumi’ letal punishment, Shigemori embarks on an investigation that will soon prompt him to question the convict’s guilt.

For the first half of the film, the lawyer’s enquiries shape a puzzling murder mystery, fuelled by the passiveness of Misumi, who initially seems ready to accept his fate, but maintains an ambiguous contradiction on his statements. Yet, this being a Kore-eda film, the action moves forward as we learnt about the families of the three main agents, -criminal, victim and defender- of the story. Shigemori’s father was the judge in the trial for Misumi’s first crimes. A press article points at the boss’ wife as the partner in crime who paid Misuni in order to obtain some insurance money. Even more significant is the fact that all three men have a teenage daughter. Their respective father-daughter relationship will play an important role.

As new evidence arises adding more confusion to the legal strategy for Misumi’s defense, ‘The Third Murder’ goes from a detective-like story to a fully-fledged courthouse drama, throwing into the equation a big central twist. From that moment on, the tone of the film changes into a more open reflection to the moral complexities involving murders and their punishment. There’s also the questioning of what could be extenuating circumstances for a capital crime, defending the premise that people are “thrown into a life they would not choose and from which they cannot escape” and supporting arguments about society’s part of responsibility in every criminal act. Some other characters, among them Shigemori’s father, oppose those ideas. The Judge believes there’s two types of people regarding their capability of killing someone else, and that is the ultimate line that cannot be crossed. Kore-eda uses then the moral ambiguity of most of his characters to display our preconceptions about what is truth in our lives as much as in the legal system we are ruled by.

This change of pace in the middle also indicates the director is not that interested in following the conventions of the genre, nor to give the film a fully rounded resolution. The storyline facts are rather there to support his points of view on the issue. But in spite of his noble intentions, the indetermination some of those actual facts are dealt with ultimately leaves a few things for us to fill in with our own guesses and opinions. Whether that constitutes a flaw or one of the film’s major achievements is certainly debatable, but those who find themselves immersed in the puzzling development of the first half may find it a bit frustrating. However, even if ‘The Third Murder’ may fall a bit short of its great ambitions, its humanist approach to such a philosophically complex and controversial matter makes it a welcome, if rather unexpected, addition to the Japanese auteur’s body of work and a really enjoyable and thought-provoking viewing experience.