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The Third Murder (Sandome no Satsujin)

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve just managed to catch up with an elusive film (it has only had a fairly limited and seemingly random distribution outside Japan) which seemed to me would have a strong Kurosawa connection. It is The Third Murder (Sandome no Satsujin) made by maybe Japans best known maker of low budget drama, Hirokazu Koreeda. I’ve been a fan of Koreeda for some time – he has made some extremely beautiful quiet dramas, strongly influenced by the Golden Age Director Naruse (lazy western critics usually cite Ozu when they write about Koreeda).

    I was particularly keen to see this film as the Guardian review mentioned the strong resonances with Rashomon. But when I saw the trailer, there seemed to be a very clear and obvious reference to the use of ‘mirrors’ and reflections in High and Low.

    The film indeed is clearly influenced by both Rashomon and High and Low, with a bit of Scandal thrown in. The plot follows a lawyer, asked by a colleague to assist with a seemingly straightforward capital punishment case. A middle aged man called Mizume is accused of, and has confessed to, the brutal murder of a factory owner, and the theft of money. Mizume had only just been released after a long prison sentence for a previous murder. The lawyers job is to avoid the death penalty by trying to muddy the waters around the murder, and perhaps suggest it was an impulsive act and not planned (from what I can understand, Japanese law tends to have a range of gradations of homocide, with the judge ultimately deciding if it was serious enough for the death penalty).

    The job of the lawyers is complicated by the apparent passivity of Mizume, and his constant changing of his story. At first, his explanations for why he killed the factory owner are just vague and contradictory, but he then states that he killed the man because he was paid by the mans wife to do so. As the main lawyer, Shigemora, digs deeper, he finds yet another possible motive.

    I won’t give away the ending, except to say that there is a ‘probable’ reason given in the end, but so many versions are given its not entirely clear what happened, or (seemingly the core question of the film) whether the truth is relevant at all to the operation of justice. Shigemora is caught in a Rashomon like situation of not knowing whether there is any one real truth, and whether knowing, or exposing, this truth is in any way relevant, morally or legally.

    While the film sort of hedges the line between being a procedural and a more philosophical exploration of justice and truth (which reminded me a little of some recent Korean films such as Memories of Murder and Mother) the film also shows clear influence from High and Low as the main protagonist agonises over the guilty mans motivation, and starts to identify with him – shown rather allegorically in their prison conversations, with one face ‘reflected’ over another.

    Rather like Kurosawa with Scandal and High and Low, the film seems to reflect the Directors concerns with the operation of justice in Japan, although those concerns seem pretty universal. In particular, the question of whether ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ are in any way compatible. Rather like Kurosawa’s early films on the topic, the approach is perhaps a little too didactic for audiences not up to speed on the operation of the Japanese system.

    As a film, I found it quite engrossing, while simultaneously a little frustrating. Koreeda is famous for a very deliberate, slow approach which in his best work absorbs the viewer into the life of his characters. Unfortunately, this type of film I think requires a more dynamic style, and the film is somewhat one-paced. Worse, it is hamstrung by some rather clunky didactic dialogue (the lawyer is followed everywhere by a young assistant, always asking stupid and naive questions which seem to have no other purpose than to explain to the audience what we are seeing), along with some heavy handed visual metaphors. The two leads are good in the roles, but there is quite poor acting in some of the lesser roles – I think mostly due to the undercooked script and somewhat contrived plotting. I can’t help feeling that Koreeda was trying to get something off his chest with this film, and found himself with a type of film making he’s not really comfortable with.

    So I’d consider it a fairly minor Koreeda film by his standards, but well worth a watch for Kurosawa fans, as the influences are very up-front. Its certainly a fascinating look at the Japanese justice system, but it doesn’t quite work as either a procedural, and is a little too heavyhanded as a more philosophical work.

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    Longstone

    Thanks for that interesting write up Ugetsu, I am a real fan of Kore-eda’s work to date and I hope his current profile will make some of his older films become a little more easily available on home video.
    It’s true he claims more influence from Naruse than Ozu but in the Western critics defense his films are peppered with little Ozu moments like static shots of scenery with a single train passing through , families eating dinner and all manner of other snacks or drinks together, plus Ozu had some great scenes with children being the main characters which Kore-eda seems to be a master of. In addition it’s much easier to see Ozu films while most of Naruse’s work remains frustratingly hard to see in western friendly editions or screenings.
    I read your post a while ago but only finally got to see ” The Third Murder” last night at a local arts centre I was surprised they were programing four screenings but disappointingly there were only 6 people in the Friday night showing.
    I did enjoy the film which was slow and dialogue based and I agree with your comments re. Rashomon being a big influence and there being some similarities with High and Low.
    I don’t speak Japanese so am totally reliant of the subtitles to convey dialogue and script so don’t know if that scans better to a native Japanese speaker. Having said that my friend and his Japanese wife also attended and she really enjoyed the film, she did point out that the lead actor is really famous and popular in Japan which will have helped the films success there.

    Even though the film was slow and different to Kore-eda’s other work I didn’t get bored and I really need to watch it again to make sure I didn’t miss some dialogue etc.
    Yesterday it was announced that Arrow will release a Blu-ray edition with a few extras so the film will be more easily available .
    Kore-eda has already almost finished his latest project called something like Shoplifting Family ? which will be at Cannes and sounds like it might be a bit of a return to his more usual style

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    Ugetsu

    I’m glad you enjoyed it Longstone, I suspect there are lots of subtleties in the dialogue that went past me. I did see that about his new film, he does seem to be very prolific.

    He’s had a surprising number of very big stars in his previous films, I suppose that is a result of his high profile. I understand why its done commercially, but if there is one flaw I’ve found in his films is that the use of highly glamorous big stars can be quite distracting when they play supposedly ‘ordinary’ people. For example, I loved Still Walking, but I didn’t really find Hiroshi Abe convincing as a ‘second’ son, overlooked by his parents. He’s simply too charismatic and handsome. Its like watching Tom Cruise trying to play George Costanza in Seinfeld.

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    Longstone

    Interesting point about Hiroshi Abe, when I first saw “Still Walking” which I also loved and really do think is an excellent film I didn’t know he was such a big star or much about him at all.
    Possibly after seeing the film I investigated the various actors careers. I was aware of YOU as she had been in ” Nobody Knows” and I thought she was quite unique with a different sounding voice so wondered why she was cast, thus then also finding out she was a big name.
    I think I got used to Abe by watching all 10 episodes of Kore-eda’s TV mini series ” Going My Home” where I’m guessing he’s playing a character more like he would be known for in Japan?

    Ugetsu , have you seen ” After the Storm ” ? I thought Abe was really good in that, presumably playing the type of character he isn’t known for ? I wondered how much of the Mother, Son relationship between Kiki Kirin and Abe are autobiographical for Kore-eda and therefore if choosing Abe was in any way related to how he wanted to portray a reflection of himself . Apparently in ” Still Walking” he was using recipes that his mother cooked and in ” After the Storm ” he used the apartment complex where he had lived with his family as a location.
    The early films have all been remastered for Blu-ray in Japan with English subtitles and are due for release over the summer. So maybe Arrow or another UK or US label will license them. It’s probably too much to ask for any of his documentaries to be made available in English friendly form though recently a couple have popped up on YouTube.

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    Ugetsu

    Longstone, I haven’t seen After the Storm. Its quite frustrating really trying to catch his films and other work as they seem to wander around the circuit for many months or even years before getting shown in the cinema here where I am in Ireland. The Third Murder was I think released in the UK 6 months ago. Typically, its on two runs now – one short run in a cinema, and a ‘tour’ with the annual Japanese Film Festival here.

    I didn’t know how big a star Abe was when I first watched Still Walking, it was later that some Japanese friends told me. But even then I found it a bit jarring watching it, I kept wondering what it was about him that would make his parents so disdainful of him. I thought that the part required an actor less physically striking. That said, he is an excellent actor and very good at comedy too.

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