Sunday, July 15, 2018

223. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 12th feature film “Sandome no satsujin” (The Third Murder) (2017): An amazing script and film less about a murder but more about why murders are committed and what is truth, presented by re-working the Rashomon principle.

ore than half a century ago the Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa made a classic film Rashomon (1950) about a samurai’s death and the rape of the samurai’s wife.  Different versions of what transpired are narrated by different characters. Each version made the viewer ponder over which version indeed was the truth and why each personality concocted their own twisted perspective of the truth. Many filmgoers would be convinced the tale belonged to director Kurosawa but Kurosawa had merely adapted a tale written by the “father of the Japanese short story”—Ryunosuke Akutagawa for the screen, with considerable help from Kurosawa’s trusted scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who contributed significantly to six of Kurosawa’s most famous works, including the original story of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952).

Nearly seven decades later, another Japanese director gives us a more complex film on similar lines to unravel the truth about a killing—with a major difference.  Unlike Kurosawa’s famous film that stood on the shoulders of a famous literary work, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Third Murder is based on Kore-eda’s own original tale and an evolved concept of filming.  The basic difference between the two outstanding Japanese directors is just that Kore-eda does not require the help of another co-scriptwriter and (with one exception) someone else’s story to make a film. He writes, edits, and even sometimes produces his own films—akin to the credentials of the late Italian director Ermanno Olmi, as in the case of his awesome The Tree of Wooden Clogs.

There are aspects of The Third Murder that can take a cinephile by surprise. First, the film shows a murder upfront. The viewer is shown the murderer and the victim.  Everything seems to be in place. The murderer is arrested and has apparently confessed to the crime, his third “murder.” A death sentence appears to be inevitable  As the film progresses, the motive, the event, and the players involved in the crime become fuzzy and less clear-cut as compared to the early part of the film. Why does the director/writer do that? Kore-eda reverses the conventional accepted narrative--the late Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky did achieve something similar in The Aura (2005).

The defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) (left)
meets his client Misumi (Koji Yakusho) (right) in prison
separated by glass

Some key lines spoken in the film are all laden with food for thought for any astute viewer of The Third Murder:
  1.    Some people in this world should never have been born”—stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi  (Koji Yakusho)
  2.     Our legal strategy is the truth”—stated by the idealistic defence lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and son of the very judge who had spared Misumi from a death sentence taking into account the murderer’s social and economic background and instead sent him to 30 years in prison
  3.    I am the one who should get judged”—stated by the murdered man’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), school-girl, sexually molested by her father, who had gotten rich by intentionally mis-labelling the food product he sold
  4.   People’s lives get decided for them” —stated by the ‘murderer’ Misumi       
  5.  “He is an empty vessel”—lawyer Shigemori’s father and former judge view of the ‘murderer’ Misumi “Are you just a vessel?” —asked by lawyer Shigemori to his client the ‘murderer’ Misumi as his appreciation for Misumi grows, “What is a vessel?” –rhetorical question from the ‘murderer’ Misumi

Sakie (the murdered man's daughter) (Suzu Hiroze) notices the fake labelling
on her father's products

Let’s re-examine the above five quotes from the film.

Some people in this world should never have been born.” That statement could easily be applicable for a triple murderer.  In The Third Murder, the line is spoken by the murderer. He is referring to other types of low-life more despicable than murderers—fathers who rape their daughters, loan-sharks who lend money to the needy, women who pay money to have their husbands eliminated and live off the insurance money, businessmen who make money by intentionally mislabelling the product. But in case one thinks a murderer is indeed the more despicable person who should not have been born—do we study why the murder has happened? Was the murderer dispensing justice when there was none else to do so in the present society? Is the legal system perpetrating the third murder of the ‘murderer’ Misumi by sentencing him to death?  Or is Misumi or any economically deprived individual wishing he was never born in an unjust world where he cannot look after his own daughter for 30 years while he was incarcerated?

Our legal strategy is the truth.” The defence lawyer Shigemori believes that he can win cases by uncovering and presenting the truth. The film begins with Shigemori wanting to save his client from a death sentence by uncovering the truth. He first persuades his client to write a letter of apology to his victim’s family, which he does. Soon it is found out that the victim’s wife paid the murderer a large sum of money via a bank transfer in an incriminating email. Did Misumi kill for money? Did Misumi kill to avenge the violation of his victim’s daughter, who was as handicapped as his own? Was it murder for theft or a theft after murder? Was there someone else physically present during the murder? Any of these scenarios could save Misumi from the inevitable death penalty. He tells his lawyer that he is not guilty but refuses to say that in court as he possibly wants to protect his victim’s daughter. Is Misumi accepting a death sentence to protect someone?

Lawyer and client, after the verdict

I am the one who should get judged.” That’s a statement from the victim’s daughter, Sakie, an individual viewed by all as an indirect victim. Kore-eda even provides shots of blood on her face. The role of Sakie and her mother, remain open-ended and never fully revealed. As cinema evolves there is less spoon feeding of the viewer--the viewer has to join the dots.

The site of the opening murder sequence appears to be marked
by a visual cross marking where the charred murdered body lay 

The birds killed by Misumi are metaphorically
buried with a cross

People’s lives get decided for them.”  Kore-eda introduces the birds and the empty birdcage for metaphoric purpose.  Misumi had a lot of birds in his birdcage within his rented flat taken after his release from prison.  He killed all of them except one and buried the dead ones in a grave marked with a cross. He gave freedom to one bird and was hoping that the released bird would return to his cell window. Kore-eda appears to be indirectly questioning the existence of the theological “free will.”

Misumi hopes that the bird he released will return to his 
outstretched palm stuck out of  his prison window to eat the grains he is offering 

The obvious and enigmatic visual cross marks the position of the lawyer on the road
looking upwards--there is not an iota of religious matter spoken in the entire film

“Are you just a vessel?” The good defence lawyer is shaken by the client’s statements and actions. His client is gifted.  By bringing their palms together, with thick glass separating them, Misumi can find out that his lawyer has a daughter with whom he has not met.  The lawyer realizes that his client has much that deserves respect rather face execution.  Is he a vessel to teach us higher values than legal ones? Kore-eda’s film suggests many profound ideas without appearing to be ham-handed.

The lawyer Shigemuri meets up with his daughter,
whom he has neglected, after separating from his wife,
 in a restaurant

The Third Murder is an incredibly well-crafted tale seeking to divulge the truth but the viewer gets to realize how fuzzy and complicated the truth is—in a modern Rashomon twist. Kore-eda’s writing craft may be missed by many casual viewers.  The “murderer” Misumi has a daughter with a bad leg who he could not take care of during the 30 years he spent in jail. The murdered man also has a daughter with a bad leg. Finally, the defence lawyer Shigemori also has a daughter (with no deformities) but also lacking a caring father, as he is more interested in his career than in her after he has separated from her mother.  The visuals of  interaction between the prisoner and lawyer that are edited delectably and the music add to the quality of the strong screenplay, acting, and direction. Fascinating stuff, Mr Kore-eda! One of best Japanese films in recent years. 

P.S. The two films referred to within the above review--Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) and Bielinsky's The Aura (2005)--have been reviewed earlier on this blog. The film The Third Murder won six awards at the Japanese Academy in 2018, including awards for the best film, the best direction, the best screenplay and the best editing. The Third Murder is now included among the author's top 100 films ever made and the author's 15 most important films of the 21st century.

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