Hirokazu Koreeda / Japan / 2017 / 124 mins
At Edinburgh Filmhouse from Fri 13 Apr 2018
What drives a man to commit murder? Can we ever really be sure of his guilt? And even in the case of confession, who among us is qualified to stand in judgement over the deeds of others and condemn them to death? These are the questions posed by this taut Japanese legal drama, which makes a big show of asking them – but doesn’t concern itself overly with the answers.
The storyline follows Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), a convicted double murderer who has just been released from a thirty-year stint in the slammer. Picked up by the police for a third murder to which he immediately confesses, Misumi is surely destined for the death penalty. There’s just one problem: the man can’t seem to settle upon a consistent version of events; with every interview, he fudges details, feigns memory loss or invents new accounts entirely.
Into this web of confusion stumbles celebrated lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), the son of a famous judge who has become jaded by the single-minded monotony of his profession. Though initially dismissive of any attempts to uncover the facts, Misumi’s bizarre approach to his own defence is enough to shake Shigemori out of his cocoon of cynicism. No longer is he focused solely on securing the best legal strategy to reduce his client’s sentence; for the first time in years – or perhaps ever – Shigemori begins to care about what actually happened.
Unfortunately, the ever-changing accounts of the events in question become increasingly tiresome, as more subplots and supporting characters muddy waters that appeared crystal clear at first glance. It’s obviously an intentional technique and perhaps a Rashômon homage from the veteran filmmaker designed to investigate ideas of absolute truth, but being almost entirely dialogue-driven, the film suffers from this ditheringly slow pace and constant contradiction.
The cinematography and soundtrack are both expertly rendered, with the prison interview scenes which interpose one face over another particularly long-lasting in the memory. All of the cast acquit themselves admirably as well; Yakusho is equal parts infuriating and enigmatic, while Shigemori provides a believable rendition of a world-weary burn-out having his universe turned upside down.
Overall, the film is a worthwhile investigation of difficult themes which does an excellent job of piquing interest but can’t fully sustain it for its two-hour duration. Furthermore, its deliberately opaque and open-ended finale leaves plenty of room for individual interpretation – though by this point, Misumi becomes much like the boy who cried murder. The audience will likely not only disbelieve his testimony, they may well struggle to care.