Twenty-two years after his debut feature, “Maboroshi no Hikari,” screened in competition, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the Venice Film Festival with his first-ever mystery thriller, “The Third Murder.” The film, which opens in Japan on Sept. 9, stars Masaharu Fukuyama, who also headlined Kore-eda’s 2013 family drama “Like Father, Like Son,” as an elite lawyer defending an aging ex-con (Koji Yakusho) facing his third murder charge — and the gallows. But the defendant, who confesses to the police soon after his arrest, turns out to a mass of contradictions, his motives a mystery.
You wrote an original script, which is not common in this genre in Japan. Why not take the safer route, at least commercially, of adapting a popular novel?
From the beginning, I had no intention of doing something based on a novel. I also didn’t want to make a suspense film. Instead I wanted to make a courtroom drama, a film about people judging people. First came the question, “What does it mean to judge another?”
The film contains a critique of the Japanese justice system, in which the conviction rate is 99% and forced confessions have often led to miscarriages of justice. Was that one of your reasons for making the film?
Criticizing the Japanese justice system was not my object in making the film, no … In Japan there is almost no plea bargaining and a lot people outside the justice system want to think that a courtroom and a trial are venues for revealing the truth. But from the people actually involved, especially the lawyers, I came to realize that that’s not actually the case. I thought that was interesting.
You’re exploring some complex themes but as a mystery story the film is rather easy to understand. Was getting that balance right a central concern, especially commercially?
I thought it was important, yes. It’s not a movie about catching a killer, but I wanted a lot of people to see it, so I couldn’t just show what I wanted to show. For that reason it’s somewhat in the framework of the suspense genre. I wanted to clearly tell a sort of easy-to-understand story. Otherwise I thought it would be hard to reach a lot of people.
This is your first time to work with Koji Yakusho. He’s played every kind of role imaginable, hasn’t he? In your film, though, he plays a character who remains a mystery from beginning to end.
He can do anything. Whatever you see him in, you can only see the character he’s playing. I think he’s the best actor in Japan. When he plays college professor he looks like a college professor, when he plays a murderer, he looks like a murderer, and when he plays an amphetamines-addicted gangster, he looks as though he’s really doing drugs. And he doesn’t do it with a wig, or special make-up or by gaining or losing weight. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s amazing. I wrote the role of Misumi with him in mind.