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Fate, Truth and Judgment

With the accused (Koji Yakusho, far right) awaiting his sentence, defense attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) makes his case in court. (Images courtesy FUJI TV / GAGA)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment

It’s anyone’s guess whether director Hirokazu Kore-eda timed his legal drama to coincide with a point in American history at which we are evaluating the basic definition of fact.

That’s what he has accomplished, however, and it’s wrapped in a heady, compelling mind-bender, “The Third Murder.”

“Court is not the place to determine the truth,” said Kore-eda, recalling conversations with law consultants for his 2013 feature “Like Father, Like Son.”

“That’s interesting,” he explained. “Then I thought if that is the case, I ant to make a film about a legal drama where the truth isn’t revealed.”

The result is a kind of jailhouse/courtroom reflection of Akira Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon,” in which the search for truth and justice is encumbered by the recollections and biases of the principals involved.

Opening today at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A., “The Third Murder” was released last year in Japan with its native title, “Sandome no Satsujin.” Obviously, the film was in production long before the beginning of the current U.S. president’s administration, but unavoidable are the considerations of how his actions and attitudes have this country re-examining what it means to be truthful – and what really constitutes “fake news.”

Beyond political statements, though, Kore-eda thrusts his characters into deeper dilemmas – questioning if we are bound by fate, and who has any right to pass judgment.

From the very first scene – shot in wonderful, wide CinemaScope – the guilt of the accused is clear. Misumi, played by veteran actor Koji Yakusho, lures his supervisor into a field and murders him in cold blood. He has freely confessed to the crime and is awaiting a court hearing to determine his punishment.

The unenviable task of defending Misumi falls to attorney Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), who is searching for an angle, any discrepancy to save his client from the death penalty.

The widow and daughter of the murder victim (Yuki Saito, left, and Suzu Hirose) hold a dark secret.

“The Third Murder” begins to veer widely off course from the standard courtroom potboiler when all the facts begin to blur. In jailhouse conversations with his legal team, Misumi’s story bends, eventually changing outright. His confidence in his own words is suspect, and it’s clear that whatever truth he’s holding is not being delivered in full.

While the gears of the legal system grind along their predetermined and expectedroute, Shigemori finds reasons not only to question the honesty of the accused, but also the validity of the criminal justice system – and whether the system really cares at all about the facts.

It’s here when a central question becomes glaringly apparent: is the criminal justice system a search for truth, or does it simply favor efficiency to satisfy public expectation? The truth might, in some instances, stand in the way of the greater good.

The situation is further muddled when Shigemori’s father, a retired judge who decades earlier spared Misumi the death penalty for two murders he committed back then, begins to feel some responsibility for the latest killing. Had he sentenced Misumi to hang 30 years ago, another man would not have been his next victim.

Shigemori’s team is of little help in sorting out the uncertainties of the situation, believing that some people deserve to die, while others simply should never have been born. Thus, what began as a fairly standard courtroom exercise has transmogrified into a twisting, often haunting psychological ordeal.

Jailhouse conversation between counsel and client only serves to blur what was thought to have been clear and concise truth.

In what is either an impressive bit of casting bravado or simply life imitating art, some of the movie’s central notions are bolstered by the inclusion of actress and former pop star Yuki Saito, as the widow of Misumi’s victim. Far beyond the pitied sufferer of tragic loss, she is hiding a secret concerning her teenage daughter, and has become the subject of lurid tabloid stories related to the trial.

A mere four days after the film’s release in Japan last year, Saito confirmed persistent rumors about a years-long extramarital affair with her doctor. She has been linked to other affairs with married men in the past, despite being a devoted member of the Mormon Church, which received requests to expel her. The doctor expressed a desire to protect her in the matter, perhaps leaving judgment to her fans, the church, or a higher power.

Such is a question for Misumi toward the end of “The Third Murder,” whether the courts are the proper forum for his judgment, or if that decision lies in the realm of his victims, or with God. In this situation, Kore-eda has made sure a complex, elusive truth is neither simple nor absolute.

“The Third Murder” is playing through Thursday, Aug. 9, at Laemmle’s Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. in West L.A. Showtimes: 1, 4, 7 and 9:55 p.m., with 10 a.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. In Japanese with English subtitles. Not rated. 124 minutes. Info:

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