Hirokazu Kore-Eda courts The Third Murder

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      Starring Masaharu Fukuyama. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      The crime at hand in The Third Murder initially seems to be routine. Middle-aged Misumi (Kôji Yakusho) has already confessed to the killing of his boss, a shady factory owner who had just fired him. Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), sleek young lawyer and son of the famous judge who passed sentence on Misumi for a previous double murder, has been hired to protect the man from a possible death sentence. But is anything in the case really as it seems?

      This effectively stylized courtroom drama is a change of pace for prolific director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose recent films have been light-handed character studies with gentle comic relief. Here, he takes on the Japanese legal system, rarely depicted in films for export, although it’s really a treatise on the idea of justice itself.

      Because the film deals with the essential unknowability of absolute truth, and the shifting perspectives that add up to a simulation of truth (or “knowing the whole elephant”, as someone puts it here), it has been called the director’s Kurosawa movie. Indeed, it carries hints of such classics as High and Low, which also dealt with crime and punishment, and the emblematic Rashomon. (Amazingly, Shinobu Hashimoto, screenwriter for the latter title, The Seven Samurai, and many other Kurosawa classics, died a few days ago, at age 100.)

      Yakusho, whom we know from Shall We Dance? and countless Japanese titles, may be a modern Toshiro Mifune. But his character remains cryptic, and the everyman burden here falls on tall, handsome Fukuyama, a huge singing star at home and familiar from Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son. Fatherhood is crucial in this story too, as the lawyer does generational battle to figure out his place in the moral universe. Both Shigemori and his client have somewhat estranged daughters, and the dead man had one too.

      Suzu Hirose, who had the title role in the director’s Our Little Sister, is this film’s empathetic conscience, and focal point for the lawyer’s conflicts. She even resembles his own teenaged offspring. Themes of transference and intuition dominate this unexpectedly poetic tale of law and order. “Psychiatry isn’t science,” says one colleague about a pre-trial requirement. “It’s fiction.”

      He could be talking about the film itself, which keeps changing what it’s about. At slightly more than two hours, this Murder might be too much of a sustained reverie for some viewers. With its muted colours, spare music (from Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi), admittedly confusing subplots, and emphasis on shifting light and reflections, the movie is a cool-headed meditation on the limits of our ability to judge others, and ourselves.