Hirokazu Koreeda is best known for intimate family dramas that overseas critics often compare to the work of Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63), the genre’s unquestioned master. Koreeda rejects these comparisons, however, and says he feels more of a cinematic kinship to Mikio Naruse (1905-69), one of Ozu’s contemporaries.
Koreeda’s films — “Still Walking” (2008), “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) and “After the Storm” (2016) — constitute a spiritual autobiography that reflects the 55-year-old filmmaker’s own family history and experience with fatherhood. But his latest, “The Third Murder,” is a courtroom drama centering on a slippery lawyer (Masaharu Fukuyama) and an enigmatic ex-convict (Koji Yakusho) accused of murdering his former boss. It’s Koreeda’s first outing in the genre and would seem to be an outlier in his filmography (though he has waded into other genres before: postdeath fantasy “After Life” in 1998 and period comedy “Hana” in 2006). Yet familiar Koreeda themes are found in “The Third Murder,” beginning with the two leads who struggle as fathers.
Koreeda, who wrote the film’s original script, says one of his prime motivations in this case was to probe the depths of the Japanese justice system, particularly the process of how it hands down judgements.
“The film turned out to be in the suspense genre, but I didn’t set out from the start to create a suspense film,” he says. The film’s gripping suspense element is no fluke; instead it’s the result of the filmmaker’s thorough preparation and masterly scripting.
For visual inspiration, Koreeda says he revisited the noir classics of the 1940s and ’50s.
“I used a wide-screen format, so for reference I wanted to find films that used it well,” he explains.
In his script, however, Koreeda downplays the whodunit mystery element found in many of those films he referenced: The ex-con, Takashi Misumi (Yakusho), confesses to murder in the film’s opening scene.
“I thought it would be better not to make the (murder case) too complicated,” Koreeda says. “Instead I came up with a really, really simple story line.”
By contrast, the film’s depiction of the convoluted legal process is highly realistic, by meticulous design. Koreeda used actual lawyers to enact prison interviews with clients and even conducted a mock trial with his legal experts playing the roles of defense, prosecution and judge. Referring to his video recordings of these exercises, he then wrote his script.
“The whole process took half a year,” he says. “That became our base.”
His purpose, he insists, was “not to film an indictment” of the Japanese criminal justice system, with its sky-high conviction rates and historically strong reliance on confessions, forced and otherwise. Instead he was more interested in exploring the gap between the public image and the professional perception of the system.
“I came to understand that lawyers see it in a different way,” he explains. “I wanted to depict the thinking of the people involved in a process that judges human beings.”
His legal sources, however, tried to dissuade him from portraying the realities of what Koreeda describes as “a very Japanese system.”
“They told me that a Japanese court trial would not make for an interesting movie,” he says with a grin.
One reason is the highly scripted nature of the typical trial here, with defense and prosecution consulting each other in advance and in detail about evidence and witnesses.
“Lawyers told me that sort of actual trial would be boring, but I thought the reality might be interesting,” Koreeda says. “Hardly anyone says anything real in the courtroom. Almost everything is decided ahead of time and the truth is found behind the scenes.”
The film goes beyond surface realism, however, to a deeper drama focused on the lawyer, Tomoaki Shigemori (Fukuyama), and his client, Misumi. They turn out to be more alike than Shigemori finds comfortable, from their estranged daughters to their predilection for bending the truth.
“I wanted to depict a relationship between two people with an element of dynamic change, in which the one judging and the one being judged find their roles reversed,” Koreeda says.
The question of guilt or innocence is by comparison secondary to the story, as is the moral grounds for the death penalty that Misumi faces.
“There are dramas and documentaries that take the stance the death penalty is wrong because the defendant is innocent and the sentence is mistaken — and that’s fine,” the filmmaker says, “but I haven’t made this film simply to oppose the death penalty.”
Instead “The Third Murder” takes a more nuanced view, with the truth of Misumi’s guilt or innocence a sort of will-o’-the-wisp both defense and prosecution consider somewhat beside the point. Instead, minus witnesses or decisive circumstantial evidence, Shigemori and his colleagues construct plausible narratives that will at least win their client a lesser sentence, if not his freedom.
“They gather only limited information and the judge hands down his verdict based on it,” Koreeda says. “He writes his judgement though no one was present at the scene of the crime. Is it scarier if he actually believes he has arrived at the truth? My honest answer is ‘yes.’ An innocent verdict arrived at in that way is scary to me.
“I didn’t want to make a film where a hero appears, solves the mystery, discovers the truth and that leads to a catharsis. I wanted to do something different. I thought it would probably be closest to an actual trial if the hero leaves the courtroom and the audience leaves the theater without the truth being clearly revealed, but feeling that something has been suddenly illuminated.”
“The Third Murder” opens in cinemas nationwide from Sept. 9.