Kore’eda Hirokazu’s courtroom drama/legal thriller The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, 2017) is a sharp critique of the Japanese legal system and how we cast judgement on others. In it, Japanese A-list character actor Yakusho Kōji plays ex-con Misumi who faces prosecution for the third time in his life, now for the murder of his former boss. Since Misumi confessed to the crime, his legal team is tasked not with exonerating him, but with challenging the charge—gōtōsatsujin (murder during robbery)—in order to deter a death penalty sentence. However, the more his lawyer Shigemori (Fukuyama Masaharu) questions Misumi in prep for the trial, the more Misumi’s testimony falls apart, leading Shigemaru through a labyrinth of lies in search of a truth he never finds.
On the surface, the film is a legal procedural focused on the many fine points of criminal charge categories and loophole defense strategies. Thematically, the film interrogates the idea of judgement, who is able to judge whom and the questionable morality of passing judgement. On this point, ultimately no one is left standing on moral high ground. On a formal level, however, the film questions how we perceive truth and witness testimony.
In The Third Murder, Kore’eda creates a sensorial depiction of truth. All five senses are invoked in the film: the taste of peanut butter acts as a character witness, the smell of gasoline establishes a timeline, and touch is the common ground between accused and accusers, criminals and victims. Sight and sound, however, are the unreliable narrators of the film, the two very senses on which most criminal trials rely: eyewitness accounts, testimonies on the stand, physical evidence to been seen, audio recordings, and, of course, the countenance of the criminal always on display in front of judge and jury. Those are also the two senses that we, the audience, use to experience film. In The Third Murder, that which is seen and heard are not to be trusted, not even the spectator’s own experience of witnessing the crime in the opening sequence.
Two scenes in the first act of the film foreshadow just how unreliable sight and sound will be in tracing the various lies spun throughout the narrative. The first is a short metaphorical trial set in the backroom of a store. Caught shoplifting, Shigemori’s daughter Yuka awaits punishment for her petty crime. Shigemori performs the role of both father and lawyer as he convinces the store manager to not press charges. He explains that he is in the middle of a murder case and hasn’t been home to take care of Yuka. “No doubt that is the source of this trouble,” he speculates as his daughter hangs her head in shame, a single tear shed in supposed shame. Convinced by the double-bill of a devoted father’s words and a daughter’s visible regret, the store manager drops the complaint.
In the next scene, however, we discover that Shigemori and Yuka don’t even live together: she is under the custody of his ex-wife. The verbal testimony of the previous scene, of disenfranchised daughter acting out to get the attention of a doting father, is turned on end. As the two confront each other in a “family restaurant,” it appears that Shigemori and Yuka rarely keep in touch and she has little to no respect for him as a paternal figure—when he attempts small talk that turns into a small lecture she quips, “Oh, you sound almost like a father.” Changing the subject in a manner that only serves to even further interrogate the fraught relationship at hand, Shigemori asks Yuka why she cried back in the shop storeroom. “Look, see?” she says as she produces another tear at will. “Isn’t it cool? Everyone falls for it.”
It would be far too simple for a Kore’eda film to leave the relationship and underlying motives between Shigemori and Yuka as an exposed lie. As Yuka wipes the imposter tear from her cheek, Shigemori takes a business call. The scene ends with the camera lingering on Yuka, ignored in this moment by her father who neither sees nor hears her. The troubled look on Yuka’s face leaves us, the audience, unsure if her harsh words and crocodile tears moments before were in fact yet another layer of fiction crafted to conceal her true character. And yet, left to rely on the same senses that have been rendered so unreliable, who are we to judge?