Mikuma walks behind his boss in the dead of night. Everything is still, barely a word is uttered between the two men, and the only audible sound is the crunching of gravel beneath their shoes. Suddenly, Mikuma (Koji Yakusho) takes out a wrench from his pocket and strikes the man. As his boss drops to the ground he goes in again, brutally beating him to death, blood splattered across his face as he set’s the man’s body on fire. It’s a shocking, visceral scene, and with it the scene is set for Hirokazu Koreeda’s new film The Third Murder – his first venture into the unknown, as he tackles a wholly different genre to what he’s known for.
After Mikuma confesses to the crime, his crackpot team of lawyers are convinced that this is an open and shut case – all they have to do is persuade the judge to not give him the death penalty. Worried about their client’s constantly changing story, lead attorney Settsu (Kotaro Yoshida) decides to enlist the help of the charismatic Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) to help boost their defence. Focused on getting to the heart of Mikuma’s story, Shigemori decides to do his own investigation into the weeks leading up to the incident by talking to those involved and the criminal himself – but in doing so he finds himself drawn into Mikuma’s web, and soon becomes unable to distinguish between the truth and the lies. Unlike his emotional and -mostly- warm family dramas, this is a cold and calculated legal thriller that is spearheaded by some of Japan’s greatest acting talents.
The chemistry between Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho is electrifying, as both actors work off each other to deliver some of their most powerful and psychologically intense performances to date. This is true of one particular scene, Fukuyama and Yakusho go head-to-head as Shigemori and Mikuma, respectively, creating an unbearable tense atmosphere around them as they talk animatedly about crime and punishment. It’s a psychologically intense scene that sees both actor’s go through a range of emotions as they desperately plea with one another, one wishing to be believed and the other pleading for the truth. Koreeda uses his skills as a director to support the sequence, enhancing the pair’s acting through clever imagery to make them appear to be mirror images of each other. It is most certainly the best scene in the film.
It is thanks to these two actors that the film is able to keep on track, since its slow pace and over-complicated plot weighs it down, ultimately hiding its meaning from view. It’s not unheard of that Koreeda favours a drawn out style of storytelling, since he’s often done this in his films, but while it suited a family drama this slow pace hinders The Third Murder. With one too many ‘twists’ and u-turns on the narrative, it’s difficult to let go and be moved by the story. It’s also unclear what we’re meant to think of Mikuma and his almost-bipolar attitude to his story and incarceration. Are we supposed to sympathise with him? One scene suggests yes. But then, not 30 minutes later, another story suggests it should be the opposite. The point that Koreeda wants to make is also so long in the making that it’s too-little-too-late.
While the film is certainly well acted, and the story is a welcome change for Koreeda, it doesn’t quite work. His over-reaching plot, and drawn out narrative doesn’t suit a film of this genre, making it difficult to become invested in anything that’s presented on screen. The film wouldn’t have worked half as well as it did if it wasn’t for the performances from the lead actors, whose skilful delivery and representation of their conflicted characters is just able to make this bearable.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Release: 23 March 2018
From: Arrow Films
Format: Theatrical Release
Age Rating: 15