Does the world need any more reminders that Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of its greatest filmmakers? Maybe it does. This past May, many (including, frankly, myself) were surprised when his Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; everyone, it seemed, expected the festival to reward something more topical or headline-friendly, or at least internationally viable. Instead, the Cannes Jury went for the understated but absorbing work of a persistent master who has been steadily building up one of the most impressive filmographies of anyone currently alive. The prize also stood as testament to the fact that Kore-eda appears to have entered a golden period. His After the Storm was one of the very best films of 2017 (or 2016, if you’re going by premiere dates), coming on the heels of such other near-masterworks as Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son. And now, while Shoplifters awaits release, we are lucky enough to be presented with two remarkable titles from this director — one a new film in theaters, and the other a newly released edition of one of his earliest classics.
The Third Murder premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and somehow made barely a peep, which is a bit surprising given that it has more genre flair than the typical Kore-eda effort. It’s still his work through and through — patient, observant, humanist — but it bears the structure of a procedural. The film opens with a factory worker, Misumi (Kōji Yakusho), brutally killing his boss by the edge of a river and then burning the body. The story follows the efforts of his lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), to argue against the death penalty after Misumi confesses to the crime. The case turns, at first, on a tricky legal question: Did this man commit a robbery and then a murder, or did he murder his victim and then happen to take his wallet? It’s a subtle distinction, to say the least, but that realm of human behavior — the little actions and gestures we make, and what they mean, if anything — is where Kore-eda lives. To understand the nature of Misumi’s crime, Shigemori has to try and understand Misumi as a person.
But that turns out to be harder than intended, and leads Shigemori further into the unanswerable corners of this man’s life. Misumi is an odd bird. He had been convicted of a murder once before, many years ago — Shigemori’s own father served as the presiding judge, reportedly treating the defendant more fairly than expected — and even there Misumi’s motives were unclear. “He didn’t hold grudges or hit anyone,” we’re told. “It was like he was an empty vessel.” And what about these weird emails from the more recent victim’s wife, talking about paying Misumi a huge sum of money? And why was the dead man’s daughter visiting the murderer leading up to the crime? The case continually seems to gain clarity before dissolving again; but none of these what-ifs and whyfors come off as red herrings. For Kore-eda, an essential truth about life lies in the accumulation of unexplainable incidents and facts.
Those are great ingredients for a murder story, but Kore-eda is interested in a different kind of mystery. Misumi seems fascinated by the randomness of death; he recalls having pet canaries, some of which he killed, and wonders about the arbitrary nature of their survival. It’s almost as if the man has a god complex, but he also seems entirely too earnest and wide-eyed — and perhaps too dim — to fall for that. Is there a kind of cosmic, karmic connection here? We get hints that his latest victim might not have been the best of men. Did Misumi know that? Is there something mystical working through his actions? An empty vessel, after all, is a vessel that can be filled — but with what, and by whom?
This isn’t the first time that Kore-eda has hinted at the mystical. (Let’s not forget, this is a man who made an entire movie about the afterlife.) But in The Third Murder, he does it in a glancing way — leaving the questions open-ended, hanging in the air — so that what emerges is an inquiry not into the divine, but instead into the mystery of human existence.
There’s a similar exploration at work in Maborosi, the director’s first feature, which was released in 1995 and is now out in a lovely new restored edition from Milestone Film and Video. It’s a powerful film — an essential work of modern Japanese cinema — but today it also serves as intriguing evidence of just how far Kore-eda has come. The tale of a young mother whose husband seemingly kills himself out of the blue, Maborosi is another inquiry into the veiled corners of human behavior. A few years after the death, Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) moves with her young son to live with a new husband and his daughter in a windswept fishing village along the Sea of Japan. Even as she finds happiness in this new life, Yumiko’s grief — the confounding and inescapable fact of her loss — still lingers. Why would her beloved, happy-go-lucky husband have done this? (The fact that nobody’s entirely sure it’s a suicide merely adds to her frustration.) The fishermen speak of a mythical light that sometimes leads sailors to their graves. It’s not an explanation, or a reason, for Yumiko’s pain; it’s just another idea that looms in the mind, a reminder of the fact that some things will always remain unknowable.
Maborosi still displays all the attention to lived-in behavior that characterizes Kore-eda’s work: Each character moves and speaks differently, shining with the complex inner life of a real person with real needs, real memories, real thoughts. But in Maborosi, with its deliberate, drawn-out story rhythms; its silent reveries; and its static frames and flat-plane compositions recalling the films of Yasujirō Ozu, we see Kore-eda as he was at the outset of his career: an auteur of the austere, of stillness and deliberation. Over the years, he has gone from tales of quiet, deadpan reflection to works of greater intimacy, films that display a lived-in warmth that perhaps more fully engages with human experience. I wouldn’t give up Kore-eda’s earlier pictures for the world — they are, after all, what originally put him on the map — but it’s clear to me that he is, today, an even greater artist.
The Third Murder
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Opens July 20, Quad Cinema
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Milestone Film & Video
Available on DVD and Blu-ray