Read the front page of any newspaper and it’s easy to wonder whether truth and justice are part of the legal system, whether you’re in the United States, Nigeria, Pakistan, or Japan. The Japanese film Sandome no satsujin (The Third Murder) is a Japanese courtroom drama that’s not interested in innocence or guilt but in the justice system and the courts. Are guilty people found to be guilty? Why do judges and the jury get to sit in judgment on another person?
The film explores the guilt or innocence of Misumi (Kōji Yakusho), a man who has already confessed to the murder of his boss. In fact, the actual murder is the opening scene of this compelling and fascinating film, though it’s easy to forget that undeniable fact as the story unfolds. On Misumi’s side is defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama). There are two other people on the defense team, a jaded older lawyer and a naive intern. Their debates about Misumi’s guilt, life story, additional evidence and the circumstances of Misumi’s confession are the heart of what writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda seeks to explore in this story.
Complicating the situation further, Misumi spent 30 years in prison for two earlier murders, so it’s unsurprisingly that everyone automatically assumes he’s guilty of the new crime. But the victim’s wife has some secrets she’s unwilling to share, and the victim’s daughter, Sakie (Suzu Hirose), has much more to do with what has transpired than is initially obvious. When she finally opens up to Shigemori about previous unknown facets of the situation, his reaction is visibly conflicted; he’s horrified by the news, but can’t help ask whether it’s good legal strategy to introduce it or ignore it.
One of the concepts that infuses The Third Murder is the “unreliable narrator”. Misumi keeps changing his story, but why? What is the truth and why would he, a convicted murderer, possibly consider killing yet another man, knowing that the consequence would be the death penalty? Sakie (Hirose) and her relationship with her father (the murder victim) mirrors Shigemori’s own relationship with his not-quite-estranged daughter. At one point he tells her “you don’t have to do bad things to ask for help” just before she hangs up on him.
What really makes this film engaging, though, are the stellar performances of both Kōji Yakusho as the murderer and Masaharu Fukuyama as the defense attorney. They are riveting and the scenes where they discuss justice, the law, the legal system and, of course, whether Misumi actually committed the crime or not sizzle with tension and their individual internal conflicts. Suzu Hirose offers up a very good performance too as the daughter who slowly, slowly reveals the truth and reality of her life to the surprised defense attorney.
The ending is ambiguous and surprising, offering a thoughtful meditation on truth and justice, as embodied by the Japanese legal system. We know from the first scene that Misumi did commit the murder, but it becomes obvious that his innocence or guilt is irrelevant, because the real question to ask is whether the legal system believes he’s guilty. Nothing else matters. And that’s a powerful message for any film. Recommended.