The Third Murder (2017) by Hirokazu Koreeda

When lawyer Tomoaki Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) is brought in to defend Misumi (Koji Yakusho) on a charge of murder, it appears to be an open and shut case. Misumi confesses to the crime and appears remorseless. However, as Shigemori delves into his past and the details surrounding the crime a different story begins to emerge.

Writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda has made his name as an incredible film-maker with a string of family-focussed stories (“Our Little Sister”, “Like Father, Like Son”). With “The Third Murder” he brings his careful observations of human behaviour to the courtroom drama. The plot of the story is straightforward, with a lawyer defending a man he believes is guilty, but the world is packed with characters and moments that make deeper connections to universal themes. It is a dialogue- heavy film with characters spending a lot of time discussing the case details. This can make for a dry experience at times, but is made enjoyable in two main ways. Firstly, by turning the film into something more akin to a detective drama, with Shigemori interviewing various individuals and cross-examining the suspect, Misumi. In fact, the film shies away from courtroom scenes until its final third. Secondly, the performances, particularly from Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho are exceptional, showing their experience and charisma on screen. Most of the standout scenes are featuring only the two of them conversing through a plexiglass screen. Mikiya Takimoto’s cinematography is slick and has a sombre tone that is fitting for the story.

“The Third Murder” investigates the very notion of truth. The lawyers are shown to be individuals for whom the truth is of relatively little importance. Their job is to have their clients acquitted, whether they are guilty or not. In fact, this very point is raised at one point by the prosecution attorney. It also looks at the notion of crime and guilt in relation to provocation, by contextualising the murder. Crime is a subject that provokes strong emotions but is rarely black and white. This film does a good job of explaining the potential pitfalls in jumping to conclusions.

Shoplifters (2018)

A boy named Shota (Jyo Kairi) is taken around by Osamu (Lily Franky) on shoplifting sprees, stealing food and other necessary items. Osamu lives with his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), older woman, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki),and her grand-daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). The precise relationships between the characters are not established until much later, but the five live together as a family unit. Nobuyo works at a laundry for low pay, Hatsue lives off her pension, and Yuki makes money working at a peep show. When Osamu and Shota come across a five-year old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), sleeping outside they decide to take her in. Despite initial concerns that this might be considered kidnapping, the group decide to treat her as a surrogate daughter. Yuri’s own parents are abusive and the family feel she would be safer with them. When they hear police are looking for her on the news they cut her hair and rename her Lin. As the search for the missing girl closes in, the bonds of family are sorely tested.

With films such as “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father,Like Son”, writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda has established himself as a master of the family drama. In “Shoplifters” he once again shows tremendous skill in creating a believable family dynamic, with the overlapping, meandering dialogue completely drawing you in to the story. The actors all give exceptional performances that further engenders a feeling of familiarity from the beginning. Particularly noteworthy are Sakura Ando, who transitions effortlessly from the hard-edged working woman to maternal compassion for Yuri,and the late Kirin Kiki, star of other Koreeda films, who plays the grandmother. Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki also do an incredible job of bringing to life the two youngest members of the family. The brilliance of Koreeda’s direction is in its subtlety. Every scene is well shot and framed but in a way that never draws attention to itself. The film draws you in so completely, that it is easy to forget that these are actors being directed, or that the camera has been set up or locations dressed. Everything is done with such apparent ease that you can almost step through the screen into the drama and forget that this is artifice and not a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Early scenes of the household, piled high with the assorted flotsam of a disorderly life, are a great way of establishing the characters quickly. The film then proceeds to add detail to these sketches by showing a little of each life. Every character has their own particular problems. “Shoplifters” also uses humour amidst the bleakness of the characters situations and is not afraid of portraying morally ambiguous protagonists. This realism in style and story makes for a completely engrossing drama.

“Shoplifters” fits neatly in with recent Koreeda film in dealing with issues of family and belonging. It also raises more serious questions, as in his earlier film “Nobody Knows”, with themes of child neglect and abuse. This is tackled in a subtle way in the film and is more potent for it. The film also looks at poverty and its effects on people. All of the characters are struggling to make ends meet with poorly paid, dangerous or degrading work. It creates sympathy for the characters while highlighting the terrible reality that they face. The most pertinent and poignant question the film asks concerns the meaning of family. “Shoplifters” offers a glimmer of hope that there are people out there who are caring and compassionate, but the heart-breaking ending is a significant statement against the oftentimes harmful nature of societal convention.

Our Little Sister (2015)

Sochi, Yoshino and Chika are three sisters who live together in a large house in a seaside town. Abandoned by their father 15 years ago after an affair, they have settled into a relaxed existence, when news of their father’s death and impending funeral reach them. On attending the funeral they meet their younger half sister, Suzu, for the first time and invite her to live with them. Suzu decides to move town and live in their house, beginning a new school and new life with her older sisters. The story shows us a little of each of their lives and how they work together to support each other.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) the film moves at a relaxed pace with a sense of realism, shying away from melodrama, as we see the everyday trials of the sisters. Their interactions seem perfectly natural, helped by the fantastic acting of all the leads and supporting cast, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose and Kaho. The characters are all likeable with distinct personalities. Rather than watching a standard plot unfold, instead it feels as though we are simply spending time with them, as we see them cooking, eating, working or at school, and it is intriguing to see what happens. Each character is given their own arc and the film is paced to give everyone just enough time to develop. The direction is likewise calm and measured, with beautifully composed shots, and the fantastic settings, such as the old house and the seaside town, used to full effect in capturing a sense of place.

A subtle examination of family life and sisterly affection. Amazing direction and acting make this an enjoyable experience.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Given the wrong children at birth, two sets of parents are left with the overwhelming decision: to exchange their six year-old sons, Keita and Ryusei, re-uniting them with their biological parents, or to choose the child they have raised for six years. Through this tragic occurrence we are given an insight into the lives of the two young boys and their parents.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this film features many of his trademarks, from the focus on family and parenthood, down to minute details of small-talk about fireworks, a sense of the passing seasons, railway crossings, and an instantly recognizable “clean” directorial style. We are undoubtedly in Koreeda’s world once again, and that means nothing short of brilliance. This is by far one of the most heartbreaking of his films, as we witness the tortuous decision the two sets of parents have to make. Every character, mothers, fathers, and children is put through the emotional wringer. Towards the end you cannot help but be moved by the situation they find themselves unwittingly in. The film offers plenty of food for thought, with both sets of parents (particularly the fathers) being very different, one strict and work-orientated, the other carefree and family-focused. This allows for an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the extent to which our lives are pre-destined dependant on our circumstances at birth, as well as many more discussions of parenthood, and in particular fatherhood. The casting and acting is spot-on, and the two young boys do a great job. Needless to say, as with most Koreeda films, the direction and music lead you through the film’s delicately constructed world, leaving little to complain about.

The film does a fine job of giving every character enough time to breath, you feel especially for the mother of Keita, but the real focus is Keita’s father. This hardworking businessman presents a touching portrayal of fatherhood as he struggles to connect with either son. I cannot recommend this film enough. I found it captivating, with believably nuanced characters, poignant story, and fantastic acting.

I Wish (2011)

The story of two brothers separated, one in Kagoshima, one in Fukuoka, after the breakdown of their parents relationship. The elder brother, who lives with his mother and in the shadow of an active volcano that regularly showers the town with ash, wishes for their parents to be re-united, and for their family to live together again. The younger brother, living with his musician father, has no such aspirations, being content with his life.

Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of the family drama, perfectly capturing the subtle complexities of interpersonal relationships, and provoking sympathy without resorting to overt sentimentality. The story, written by Koreeda, hinges around the ‘miracle’ (which is the Japanese title of the film) that occurs when two Shinkansen trains pass one another. It is said that if you witness this and make a wish, it is sure to come true. While this is the only discernible plot, it is clear that it is only a means to an end, providing a motivation for the characters and a reason for following their lives for this short period. Along the way, Koreeda creates such a full, vibrant, and true-to-life world, that the story soon becomes secondary to the characters. This is emphasised by the direction, which takes us to the heart of the drama. One particularly memorable scene is when the children are telling their wishes to each other. It is filmed in the style of an intimate video diary, creating a sense of realism that the rest of the film also strives to capture. The young actors do a fine job, bringing a youthful energy to their roles and the believable hopefulness and naiveté necessary to tell this story. The two brothers are played by real-life brothers, Koki Maeda and Oshiro Maeda. It is said that Koreeda did not complete the script until the actors were cast and this is apparent from the way each of them seem to perfectly embody their characters. I would give equal credit to both the writing and acting in developing rounded characters, who never fall into cliché.

Koreeda films tend to shun typical action and big moments, being less plot-oriented than many others. Instead what he gives you is life itself, without pretence or artifice. Moments of realisation are peppered throughout, just as in life, and his gentle, generally positive outlook on the world is infectious, creating a feel-good film for all. As with other Koreeda films, this feels less like watching characters go through some convoluted plot, but rather it feels like spending time with real people, with their hopes, dreams and fears.