My favorite contemporary Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda shifts from family drama to a mysterious courtroom drama in The Third Murder (三度目の殺人). The plot looks straightforward at the start. Misumi has confessed to killing his factory boss near a riverbed, stealing his wallet and setting his body on fire. The prosecution is asking for the death penalty (still available in Japan) and the defense lawyer Shigemori plans to reduce that to a life sentence. Problem is that Misumi seems to keep changing his story. But there is enough chance to show that the murder was not premeditated if only Misumi would stick to his story.
Shigemori and his assistant start gathering details and evidence for the case and several discrepancies show up. Misumi had spent 30 years in prison for an earlier killing of loan sharks who had preyed on gullible people. A letter from Misumi to Shigemori's father, who had defended his loan shark killing, about the futility of telling the truth and the lack of control over one's own lives. A mysterious payment in Misumi's bank account several days before the murder. Misumi's mercy killing of his pet birds a few days before the murder. The discovery that the boss had been adulterating the food from his factory. And the victim's daughter revealing that her father used to abuse her.
In a normal movie, we would learn that Misumi murdered his boss for abusing his daughter, but here that is not clear. Was the payment from his boss to shut his mouth about the adulteration or a payment from the wife to kill her abusive husband? Did the daughter kill her father and Misumi took the fall since she had confessed the abuse with him?
Amidst this confusion is the main protagonist: the legal system of Japan. A prosecution that is only bent on making a man pay for his crime. A defense that is only bent on reducing the sentence, no matter what the truth. A judge who just wants the case finished on schedule.
This movie left me with many questions. The title says third murder, so Misumi is innocent and is being murdered by the legal system? In the The Making of video on the DVD the director says he intentionally wrote the story without himself knowing who murdered!
As usual with Koreeda, the acting is top notch here, especially Misumi and Shigemori. The movie gets so much into the details that I learnt quite a bit about how a legal criminal case is handled in general. The cinematography is gorgeous: dreamy Hokkaido, the lawyer's office and the courtroom. The best part is the interrogation room with a glass pane in the center. As the movie progresses we see the pane almost disappear between Shigemori and Misumi, putting both of them on the same side (in reflections) like vessels of each other in the climax. What a visual treat! If you love movie soundtracks, do not miss the subtle and poignant score by Ludovico Einaudi here. It looks like Kore-eda has created an enigmatic gem in his first venture in this genre.