Japanese cinema has often put the justice and legal system on trial and found it wanting. From Yoji Yamada’s Flag in the Mist in which a “selfish” lawyer contributes to the death of an innocent man, to Yoshitaro Nomura’s spiralling, feverish The Incident, Yoshimitsu Morita’s Kafka-esque Keiho, Gen Takahashi’s pointed Court of Zeus, and Masayuki Suo’s comparatively more straightforward I Just Didn’t Do It, the entire justice system takes on an almost spiritual quality of absurdity, tormenting the accused for the sake of a pantomime of justice, little caring for his or her guilt or innocence and intent only on propping up its own sense of absolute authority.
Like Yoji Yamada in Flag in the Mist, The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Sandome no Satsujin) finds director Hirokazu Koreeda in unfamiliar territory though, at heart, it all comes back to family. A top lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), currently in the middle of a divorce, is asked to represent a man who has freely confessed to murder. As the son of the original judge who sentenced the accused, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), to the 30 year sentence he had not long been released from before (allegedly) committing the crime, Shigemori feels a responsibility to act but is frustrated by his client’s constantly shifting story. Nothing he says adds up, and every new angle Shigemori uncovers provokes only more doubt as to the true nature of the case at hand.
Shigemori, somewhat condescendingly, criticises the junior lawyer in the office for his naivety in wanting to to investigate the crime. Understanding and empathy are “unnecessary” in defending a client. The business of a lawyer, on either side, is to assess the evidence at hand, create an argument that withstands scrutiny, and eventually triumph in debating one’s opponent. In the face of the law, the “truth” is an irrelevance.
Shigemori’s cynicism is however rocked by the eerie presence of Misumi who seems to carry with him a kind of deepening emptiness. Misumi has already served 30 years in prison for the murder of two loansharks, the theft of their money, and an act of arson committed on their property to disguise the crime. Shigemori’s father, now a much older man, laments his youthful naivety in handing down a compassionate judgement which took into account the mitigating circumstances – Misumi’s troubled childhood, his poverty, the dire economic situation in which the closure of the local mines had led to mass unemployment and provided fertile ground for unscrupulous money lenders, and a series of personal tragedies which may have unbalanced his mind, but now he thinks some people are just bad and Misumi’s third murder is, in a sense, also his responsibility in allowing him the freedom to commit it.
Yet, there is also a doubt that Misumi’s first crimes are even his. We are told that, like the current case, Misumi couldn’t stick to one story – a common phenomenon with those who confess under duress, saying yes to everything in order to make the questioning stop but later forgetting what exactly they confessed to. Misumi later says he confessed only because he was told that confessing was the only way to avoid the death penalty which, ironically enough, is what he now faces. He also claims he was intimidated by the (admittedly stern) prosecutors, and when it looks as if a new trial may be necessary, the judge opts for the most “judicially economical” solution to incorporate the new demands into the current trial for reasons which the lawyers attribute to his personal need to get the case off his docket in good time so as not to muddy his own reputation. Japan’s 99% conviction rate is less an endorsement of judicial efficiency than a worrying indictment of the legal process in which trials are mere formalities held for show, a pantomime intended to reinforce an idea of “justice” which does not quite exist.
The weight of justice itself is called into question. We learn that the victim was guilty of several crimes, some of them more forgivable than others. Yet is his death “justice” or “murder”, was he “killed” or was the act one of “salvation” for his victims? There are no easy answers and the uncomfortable fact remains that one kind of justice may not necessarily be any different from another. Misumi remains a cypher, his motives for committing the crime(s) (if he even did commit them at all) unclear yet there is also something in him that suggests he is merely a reflection of ourselves, a projection of our own primal need to see justice done that our civil selves have tried and failed to codify into a universally recognised system of fairness known as law. Then again perhaps all we really want is a story we can understand and empathise with, perhaps we don’t want justice at all – we want narrative, a strategy for defence against the cruel and arbitrary charges of an unforgiving world. Shigemori stands at a crossroads, cleansed of his cynicism but unsure what to replace it with, as, perhaps, as we.
Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Academy.
International trailer (English subtitles)