Does the world need any more reminders that Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of its greatest filmmakers? Maybe it does. In May, many (including, frankly, myself) were surprised when his Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; everyone, it seemed, expected the festival to reward something more topical or headline-friendly, or at least internationally viable. Instead, the Cannes jury went for the understated but absorbing work of a persistent master who has been steadily building up one of the most impressive filmographies of anyone currently alive. The prize also stood as testament to the fact that Kore-eda appears to have entered a golden period. His After the Storm was one of the very best films of 2017 (or 2016, if you’re going by premiere dates), coming on the heels of such other near-masterworks as Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son. And now, while Shoplifters awaits release, we are lucky enough to be presented with another remarkable title from the director.
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The Third Murder premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and somehow made barely a peep, which is a bit surprising given that it has more genre flair than the typical Kore-eda effort. It’s still his work through and through — patient, observant, humanist — but it bears the structure of a procedural. The film opens with a factory worker, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), brutally killing his boss by the edge of a river and then burning the body. The story follows the efforts of his lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), to try and argue against the death penalty after Misumi confesses to the crime. The case turns, at first, on a tricky legal question: Did this man commit a robbery and then a murder, or did he murder his victim and then happen to take his wallet? It’s a subtle distinction, to say the least, but that realm of human behavior — the little actions and gestures we make, and what they mean, if anything — is where Kore-eda lives. To understand the nature of Misumi’s crime, Shigemori has to try and understand Misumi as a person.
But that turns out to be harder than intended, and leads Shigemori further into the unanswerable corners of this man's life. Misumi is an odd bird. He had been convicted of a murder once before, many years ago — Shigemori’s own father served as the presiding judge, reportedly treating the defendant more fairly than expected — and even there Misumi's motives were unclear. “He didn’t hold grudges or hit anyone,” we’re told. “It was like he was an empty vessel.” And what about these weird emails from the more recent victim’s wife talking about paying Misumi a huge sum of money? And why was the dead man’s daughter visiting the murderer leading up to the crime? The case continually seems to gain clarity before dissolving again; but none of these what-ifs and why-fors comes off as a red herring. For Kore-eda, an essential truth about life lies in the accumulation of unexplainable incidents and facts.
Those are great ingredients for a murder story, but Kore-eda is interested in a different kind of mystery. Misumi seems fascinated by the randomness of death; he recalls having pet canaries, some of which he killed, and wonders about the arbitrary nature of their survival. It's almost as if the man has a God complex, but he also seems entirely too earnest and wide-eyed — and perhaps too dim — to fall for that. Is there a kind of cosmic, karmic connection here? We get hints that his latest victim might not have been the best of men. Did Misumi know that? Is there something mystical working through his actions? An empty vessel, after all, is a vessel that can be filled — but with what, and by whom?
This isn’t the first time that Kore-eda has hinted at the mystical. (Let’s not forget, this is a man who made an entire movie about the afterlife.) But in The Third Murder, he does it in a glancing way — leaving the questions open-ended, hanging in the air — that what emerges is an inquiry not into the divine, but instead into the mystery of human existence.