Sandome no Satsujin (2017)

vt The Third Murder
Japan / 125 minutes / color / Amuse, FILM, Fuji TV, GAGA, Gyaga Dir & Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda  Pr: Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi Cine: Mikiya Takimoto Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Kôji Yakusho, Suzu Hirose, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Mikako Ichikawa, Izumi Matsuoka, Isao Hashizume, Hajime Inoue, Aju Makita, Yuki Saitô, Kôtarô Yoshida.

A movie that takes the form of a cross between a neonoir and a legal drama, but goes in a rather different direction to become a meditation on the nature of truth—a meditation that’s arguably especially needed in an era when we’re bombarded daily by the purveyors of “alternative facts.”

Misumi Takashi (Yakusho) murders his boss, Yamanaka Mizue (uncredited), down by the river side, beating him repeatedly over the head with a wrench, then sets the body on fire. He makes no real effort to evade arrest for the crime, and faces the death penalty.

Mikako Ichikawa as the prosecutor, Sasabara Itsuki.

By the time hotshot lawyer Shigemori (Fukuyama) is called in to conduct Misumi’s defense, Misumi has already made a full confession. Yet the stories he tells Shigemori and Shigemori’s young intern, Kawashima Akira (Mitsushima), keep changing. Shigemori works hard to persuade him he should stick to a single version, one that’ll cast him in the most favorable possible light in the eyes of the judge, Ono Minoru (Inoue). Shigemori is not at this stage much concerned with the literal truth of what happened: he wants, rather, to create a “judicial truth” that’ll persuade the judge to be lenient and give his client a life sentence rather than condemn him to death.

Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori.

Into the picture come the victim’s widow, Yamanaka Mizue (Saitô), and especially the victim’s young, disabled yet magnetically lovely daughter Sakie (Hirose). Sakie’s limp—it forces her to drag along at a snail’s pace that’s painful to watch—came about, she tells the world, because as a child she threw herself off a roof at her father’s factory.

Suzu Hirose as Sakie.

But is that really the truth?

And is it the truth that Sakie’s father was sexually abusing her for years, ever since she was 14, and that Misumi, learning of this and of Sakie’s desire that the man should die, was her knight in white armor?

Kôji Yakusho as Misumi Takashi.

Daughters play a major role in the subtext of this movie. Shigemori, in the midst of a seemingly acrimonious divorce, has a 14-year-old daughter, Yuka (Makita), who’s acting up; he can hardly help his vision of Sakie being colored by his love for Yuka and his pain at the thought of losing her—the two girls even look quite alike. Misumi, on the other hand, has already lost his own daughter, Megumi (doesn’t appear); he last saw her thirty years ago when he was imprisoned—in a case where Shigemori’s father, Akihisa (Hashizume), was the presiding judge—for a double murder. Megumi is fond of publicly stating that she’d like her father dead. And, like Sakie, she has a profound limp . . .

Shinnosuke Mitsushima as Kawashima Akira.

“In jail,” says Misumi at one point, “at least I don’t have to lie.” The lie he’s specifically referring to in this instance is his dead employer’s habit of crookedly altering the tags on flour, a crime in which Misumi was forced to be complicit, but he might as well have been referring to the entirety of the judicial system. He was, after all, instructed by lawyers to plead guilty to a crime he now says he didn’t commit, in hopes of commuting his sentence. That same judicial system, in the form of prosecutor Sasabara Itsuki (Ichikawa) and Misumi’s own attorney, Settsu Daisuke (Yoshida), is now trying to bury the truth of how Sakie was raped repeatedly by her father.

Yuki Saitô as Yamanaka Mizue, the victim’s widow.

Kôtarô Yoshida as Settsu Daisuke (left) and Masaharu Fukuyama as Shigemori.

Truth, it seems, has no objective reality. It’s just whatever it is that we find convenient to believe.

By now Shigemori is beginning to wonder if indeed Misumi did kill the factory-owner. And so powerful is the quicksand of the movie’s tale-telling, we’re beginning to share Shigemori’s doubts—even though at the outset we watched with our very own eyes as Misumi committed the crime. Truth, as Shigemori père observes, is like the fable of the blind men and the elephant: we can only ever be aware of a part of it, and we form our opinion of the whole based on that partial knowledge.

Suzu Hirose as Sakie.

There are other shifting sands. Really Sandome no Satsujin should be Shigemori’s story: he’s the main protagonist, ostensibly the mover and shaker of the piece; he’s the one making the voyage of philosophical discovery. And yet, perhaps in large part because of an absolutely sensational performance from Suzu Hirose, it becomes Sakie’s story, as well as the kind-faced, gentle-seeming Misumi’s. That this should be so is the truth of the matter, and yet that’s not the truth the world will likely see: instead they’ll see the “truth” depicted by the judge in his resolution of the case.

Sandome no Satsujin is quite slow-moving, which may dissatisfy people with short attention spans, and yet it’s one of those movies that last well beyond their stated running time as you chew over the questions it has asked, and the thoughts it has required you to thrash out in your own mind.

11 thoughts on “Sandome no Satsujin (2017)

  1. An excellent review of a very good drama. As you say, it’s easy to make certain assumptions about Misumi’s actions based on those initial scenes.

    I’m a big fan of this director’s work having discovered him a few years ago through the film I Wish. His latest, Shoplifters, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, so I’m hoping it will come to the UK fairly soon.

    The Third Murder is probably his darkest, most existential film. The others I’ve seen focus more on family tensions and relationships, particularly those between children and their parents. (Your comments on the role of daughters in this one certainly strike a chord.) He also seems to have a real talent for coaxing naturalistic performances from young kids (I Wish and Like Father, Like Son).

    As an aside, have you seen the Japanese film Harmonium (2017)? If not, you might want to take a look. It’s less noirish than Kore-eda’s The Third Murder, but still very good.

    • Golly, Jacqui: What an extraordinarily useful comment. I’ve made a note to keep an eye out for Shoplifters, and have put the other three movies you mention on order from the library.

      I know far less about the modern Japanese stream of noir-oriented movies than I should, and really ought to try to watch more of them.

      • Oh, you’re very welcome. I do hope you enjoy some of them. Harmonium is probably the closest to the noir genre given the motivations of one of the central characters, whereas the other Kore-edas are more humane. Still very good though – just different in terms of tone.

        • Oh, I imagine I’ll enjoy them. Aside from anything else, my wife’s a died-in-the-wool Japanophile (or whatever the term is), so we’ll have fun watching them together.

    • We’ve now received some of his movies from the library (they have a new **IMPROVED!!** interloan system that takes substantially longer than the old one) and tonight we tried I Wish. Splendid fun, and the kids were by and large wonderful. Thanks for encouraging me to pursue the director’s work further!

      Next up, tomorrow or Wednesday, will be Like Father, Like Son.

      • Hooray! You’re very welcome. I’m so glad you enjoyed I Wish. It’s probably my favourite of Kore-eda’s films, although The Third Murder is pretty good too. There are more terrific performances from kids in Like Father, Like Son, another interesting tale of family relationships and the importance of nurture vs nature.

  2. That’s a great review. I like how director depicted that, at the end of the day, the search for “truth” has been almost futile since the judge has already made up his mind.
    I also have this strange feeling that some people may not understand this film or misunderstand it because of a cultural difference. I have been into the Japanese culture recently, and kind of get that uncertainty, contradiction, subtlety and truth malleability which the director tried to convey. That’s basically the cornerstones of a Japanese society too with their Buddhist views – truth is hardly absolute, etc. I am therefore not sure that an average viewer will necessarily “get” these Japanese “details”.

    • I love fictional works that focus on the ambiguity of reality. (As an aside: When it comes to real life, though, my views are otherwise: I have no patience with reality-deniers.) It seems to me this movie is presenting Japanese jurisprudence as being every bit as corrupt as our own. Elsewhere on this site I talk about a Chinese movie (title currently forgotten; will try to remember to check later) that conveys the same message: courts of law pretend to objectivity, but really they just follow their own preconceptions.

  3. Pingback: “The Third Murder” Review | Noirish

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