Murder mysteries are popular film and television fodder in Japan, but most revolve around puzzle plots that hold as much real-world probability as the cases of Sherlock Holmes.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Third Murder” also presents a puzzle, but it’s in the form of twice-convicted killer Takashi Misumi (Koji Yakusho) who, shortly after his release from 30 years in prison, is arrested again on suspicion of committing yet another murder.
The film, which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, begins as a noir-ish procedural (imagine an episode of “Law & Order” transposed to Japan). Working from his own script, however, Koreeda transforms his simple premise into a powerful, intricately constructed meditation on the mysteries of the heart, the elusiveness of truth and the injustices of the Japanese justice system, in which the scales are tipped in favor of the prosecution.
That is the case with Misumi, who early on smilingly admits to murdering his former boss and stealing money from the company safe. As a three-time killer he will almost certainly be sentenced to death.
Assigned to defend Misumi, the cynical Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his two legal colleagues brainstorm stratagems for getting the sentence reduced. For them the question of their client’s actual guilt or innocence is irrelevant and immaterial.
And yet when Shigemori personally delivers a letter of contrition from Misumi to the victim’s daughter, Sakie Yamanaka (Suzu Hirose), which she promptly tears to pieces, he notices something that opens a crack in his pat and, as he knows, false defense scenario.
In the course of the film, that crack widens to a chasm with Misumi revealed as an unreliable narrator of his own crimes. That is, his relationship to the truth is as elastic as Shigemori’s, though his motives are darker, deeper and finally unfathomable.
More links between lawyer and client emerge: Both have daughters they have managed to alienate, and Shigemori’s father (Isao Hashizume) was the judge who sent Misumi to prison (and who now regrets not sending him to the gallows).
“If I’d given him the death penalty there would have been no more killing,” he says, dismissing Misumi’s stated motive for murdering two loan sharks three decades ago. “He didn’t have a grudge — he’s an empty vessel.”
Is this not also true of his defense attorney?
The film strikingly underlines this parallelism with eerie shots in the prison visiting room: Shigemori’s face reflected in the glass barrier, next to Misumi’s impassive visage on the other side. As he gazes into his client’s unreadable eyes Shigemori peers, horrified, into a void he fears slipping into himself.
This drama of a flawed man coming reluctantly to terms with his own moral failings and struggling to remedy them is familiar from Koreeda’s other films, particularly the 2013 film “Like Father, Like Son,” in which Fukuyama played another self-centered and conflicted member of the elite.
But “The Third Murder” also offers the satisfactions of a well-constructed suspense story, with twists that come from the characters of its principals, not plot contrivances. It also relentlessly exposes a judicial system that seems as fixed as a pro-wrestling bout, with defendants assigned predetermined story lines they change at their peril. Misumi, of course, is the heel. Koreeda’s film, though, is a masterpiece.