While critically acclaimed director Hirokazu Kore-eda is most know for investigations into the nature of familial relations, see for instance his Like Father, Like son (2013), After the Storm (2016), Our Little Sister (2015) and Palme D’or winner Shoplifters (2018), he attempted something totally different in 2017: a court-drama.
Even though Daisuke Settsu (Kôtarô Yoshida) is charged with the defense of Takahashi Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), who has confessed murdering his ex-boss and factory owner Yamanaka Mitsuo, it doesn’t take long before he asks the support of attorney Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama). The reason for asking support is not so much because Misumi, who already did 30 years for another murder, faces the death penalty, but because he changes his explanations every time. And then, unbeknownst to his lawyers, Misumi reveals in an exclusive interview that Mizue Yamanaka’s wife ordered him to ask her husband.
As there is seemingly no doubt about the murderer – due to Misumi’s confession, The Third Murder does not initially touch upon the question of guilty or not guilty. The narrative introduces itself, instead, as being concerned with showing the very way lawyers play with the law in order to open a possibility to win a case. In this way The Third Murder subtly unearths that the system of justice, at least in the eyes of the lawyers, is first and foremost a symbolic playing field – a game of chess to play in front of the judge with signifiers as pieces.
More concretely, Shigemori must in order to have a case change the accusation from homicide to just premeditated theft. In other words, the initial purpose of Shigemori as lawyer is finding evidence, pieces of materiality, that generates those signifiers that are able to cast doubt on or to give another meaning to the supposed truthfulness of the accusation. Due to the focus on signifiers, one quickly feels that the accused as subject is not the lawyer’s main concern. The client is only useful in his function of generating the necessary signifiers for them to be able to play the game of justice (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). The subjectivity of Misumi is, due to the very focus of his lawyers, murdered.
By collecting signifiers, the lawyer aims to construct a narrative, a structure of signifiers, around the crime. The choice of and the way of structuring the signifiers into the crime’s narrative is in this case solely aimed to lower Misumi’s punishment as much as possible (Narra-note 3). But the constructed narrative, as is made clear beautifully in The Third Murder, is also structured by lacuna – unknown signifiers – and even with lies, to be understood as those signifiers implying an incorrect meaning.
It is due the centrality of the lie, so beautifully evoked by the cinematographic composition of the narrative, that Kore-eda is able to critically put into question the power of the confession, the usefulness of the death-penalty as possible third murder, and the value of truth as such within the Japanese legal system (Narra-note 4 (spoiler)). But the appearance of the lie in The Third Murder is also the perfect way to evoke the possible problematic position for a lawyer, if he gets caught between the symbolic game of justice he wants to play and the client whose voice as subject was murdered – this too concerns the third murder (Narra-note 5).
With Kore-eda as director and writer, it should not surprise anyone that his court drama touches upon family and familial relationships as well. More concretely, Kore-eda focuses, through the framing of a myriad of relationships, on the position of the father in relation to his daughter. First, we have the evocation of the relation between Yuka (Aju Makita) and her father Shigemori, with Yuka asking him, by way of acting-out, to take up his position as father. Secondly, the narrative explores the relationship between Misumi and his daughter Megumi and eventually the relation between Sakie (Suzu Hirose), the victim’s daughter, and Misumi as well (Acting-note 1). It is especially in the framing of these moments that the narrative is able to touch the spectator – more so because these moments are in constant contrast with the cold and logical game of signifiers Shigemori plays.
If we add up all these various subtle snippets of familial functioning, The Third Murder constitutes nothing other than a subtle exploration of what it is to be a father – an exploration that eventually underlines his importance as presence as opposed to his absence. Shigemori’s investigation into the daughter of the victim ultimately adds the subtle footnote it is not the presence as such that is important, but the quality of his presence. Another footnote is added by the presence of Shigemori’s father. He, as presence, will, besides emphasizing the questioning of justice, problematizes the position of father (Narra-note 6).
While fixed shots are present, Kore-eda’s characteristic love for subtle cinematographical movement is also apparent in his court-drama. (Semi-)fixed compositions are mostly used to frame conversations, like the various prison interrogations and Shigimori’s visit to the victim’s family for instance. Within the flow of subtle movement, these moments have, by their very fixity, an emphasizing effect. In various cases, this fixity aims – and succeeds, in making the ever-present reality of human emotions present – a reality that has, at the level of the game of justice, no central role.
Even though music is only sparingly used, the interweaving of subtle serene music with the imagery is absolutely fabulous. The music accompanying the framing of the murder, the beginning of the narrative, infuse the entire narrative space with an atmosphere of serene sadness. But this sadness, allowed to meander through the narrative space, is not a sadness that condemns, but a sadness that is sorrowful.
It is through the serene, but slightly distant framing of the narrative as such that Kore-eda succeeds in suspending his own judgement and, as a result, allows the spectator to do the same. But, of course, this does not mean that Kore-eda’s subjectivity as director is not present. Kore-eda’s subjectivity is, in truth, to be found in the very atmosphere evoked by the serene and sorrowful music, an atmosphere succeeding in confronting the spectator with the problematic nature of the Japanese legal system.
The Third Murder might not be Kore-eda’s finest, as it lacks the moving mono-no-aware he is so talented in evoking, it is still an unsettling and powerful account of the problematic aspects marking Japan’s legal system – a system enabling the third murder. Even with its rather undramatic finale, Kore-eda’s beautifully structured narrative does not fail to leave its spectators with a uncomfortable feeling, as one is forced to confront the unfair fact that the game of signifiers and the image, as seen by the societal Other, is more influential for the court proceedings than the uncovering of truth – truth to be understood as the narrative explaining most of the material aspects.
Narra-note 1: Shigemori underlines this fact when he says that one does not need to understand the client in order to play the game of justice. While he adds that they are not friends, we would not equate the desire to understand a person with friendship.
In light of the symbolic play with the law, there is also a slight irony to be sensed in Shigemori’s meeting with the victim’s family.
Narra-note 2: Another example that reveals the importance of the signifier within the field of justice, is the lawyers’ discussion of the possibility to read the mail-exchange between Shigemori and Misumi’s wife as a request to murder her husband – the meaning of the signifiers. But in truth, what they discuss is not so much their interpretetation of this exchange, but the possibility to ‘force’ the others, i.e. the others of the court and the public, to read the signifiers in the same way.
Narra-note 3: Of course, a case is built with evidence, but one should not forget that evidence only receives its full meaning within a narrative.
Narra-note 4: What is most disturbing in The Third Murder is that the court case, despite the Misumi’s sudden denial of the murder, is continued – societal reasons of appearance win against what should be the main concern of the court case: the establishment of something that approximates the truth. This is nothing else constitutes the third murder.
Narra-Note 5: The repetition of Misumi’s question ‘do you believe me?’ should be read as an interpellation to Shigemori to really hear what he is saying, instead of hearing in function of the game he has to play.
Acting-note 1: While each acting performance is great – emotionally subdued for the greater part, it is especially Suzu Hirose’s performance that’s impressive.
Narra-note 6: The dimension of family is most beautifully evoked by Shigemori’s father, when he says: “If we can’t even understand family, how can we understand a stranger”. But do note that the fundamental question evoked here concerns the impossibility of understanding another person as such.