Toronto review: The Third Murder, Koreeda’s morally complex noir

This metaphysical crime thriller from the maestro of Japanese family life will leave audiences with more mysteries to ponder than simply whodunnit.

Michael Leader
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The Third Murder (2017)

There are no cherry blossom trees or sizzling tempura in this new film from Koreeda Hirokazu, maestro of Japanese family life on film. Instead, The Third Murder opens with a man being viciously beaten about the head and burned to a crisp on a gloomy riverbank. The supposed perpetrator, a previously convicted murderer by the name of Misumi (Yakusho Kōji), turns himself in, confesses to the crime, and is caught in the machinery of the legal system. A defence attorney, Shigemori (Fukuyama Masaharu), is assigned to the case, and sets about plying his trade, gaming the system to reduce his client’s chances of facing the death penalty.

After four films exploring what kogonada calls the “rhythms of everydayness” in family dramas such as I Wish (2011) and Our Little Sister (2015), this shift into crime thriller territory may seem stark. The chilly palette of Japan in winter and stylised CinemaScope cinematography – reportedly informed by genre staples ranging from Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce to David Fincher’s Se7en – suggest a new spin on a familiar formula: a Nippon noir, if you will.

Yet what initially comes on like a genre exercise soon develops into a metaphysical examination of objective truth and the power that narratives have to shape and sometimes distort the world around us. The distances between events as experienced, remembered, communicated and comprehended are The Third Murder’s four thematic poles. Look back through Koreeda’s career and you’ll find this is nothing new: the memories recreated for the recently deceased characters in After Life (1998) present nostalgia as a comforting yet imperfect facsimile of reality, while the TV documentary Without Memory (1996) traced the life of a man suffering from Wernicke’s Kosakoff Syndrome, a condition that prevents the formation of new memories, impacting his identity and everyday existence in unexpected ways.

The Third Murder (2017)

In The Third Murder, the truth is elusive. The facts of the case, at first seemingly simple, soon prove slippery, as does Misumi’s testimony. Veteran Japanese actor Yakusho Kōji provides a sinuous, cryptic performance that invites judgement but defies definitive interpretation. He is by turns a repentant killer, a victim of the system and even a stalwart antihero – all delivered in soft, mild-mannered tones. The film hinges on a series of one-on-one dialogue scenes in the prison interview room, shot in close up, often with reflections of lawyer and client overlapping in the dividing glass. Where one would expect a murder-mystery to cohere, The Third Murder’s plotline refracts as new information and compromised perspectives complicate the case. Did he kill out of spite, to resolve a debt, or as a righteous act? Did he even commit the murder at all?

Koreeda uses the momentum of the genre – its twists and turns, reveals and developments – to an unusual end, rejecting a satisfying conclusion for a complex moral conundrum. As Shigemori barrels forward to resolve the case, he becomes implicated in a system that prizes smooth process over complex inquiry, and never lets the pursuit of truth get in the way of dispensing justice. Sleek and suspenseful, deceptive and profound, The Third Murder is an artful addition to the canon of modern-day crime drama, one whose core mysteries encompass more than just the case at hand.

 

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