Over the past two decades, Hirokazu Kore-Eda has quietly established himself as a director with an exceptional grasp of portraying interpersonal relationships. After a number of documentaries (and one drama, Maborosi) his feature After Life, released in 1998 and also written and edited by Kore-Eda himself, began a career that has featured wonderful pieces of human drama in the forms of Still Walking, I Wish, Nobody Knows and more.

With this in mind, it was with much anticipation that I went to see The Third Murder, as it marks a change of tone for Kore-Eda. A legal thriller revolving around a defense lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), striving to lessen the sentence of his client, Misumi (K?ji Yakusho), the initial hook of the film is that it opens with the murder in the title taking place. As a viewer we are in no doubt that Misumi has committed the crime he is charged with, and as such the remainder of the film becomes about asking why.

Here is where Kore-Eda showcases his best qualities as a filmmaker. His direction is minimalist and keeps focus on the characters at the heart of The Third Murder, as Shigemori through investigation and questioning gradually pieces together the intent behind Misumi’s crime. Quiet dialogue scenes slowly unravel the difficult relationships shared by its primary and secondary cast; from Shigemori’s relationship with his own father, how Misumi interacted with both his victim and the family of said victim, to the development between Shigemori and Misumi themselves as the court date looms.

Where the film falls short is that it lacks the emotional depth of Kore-Eda’s prior films. While the character development and pacing is of the same high standard, the slight change in the framework (close to adopting genre elements) robs the film of the resonance seen in earlier works. While family drama is still a component of the film, it is not the active drive behind the film’s narrative, where the focus is undeniably on how Misumi will be tried at court. A newcomer may not notice this absence, but for those familiar with Kore-Eda’s work, The Third Murder will likely feel slight in comparison.

This ultimately does not detract from what is a thoughtful, considered drama. It does however hinder it from being placed in the upper echelons of the director’s body of work. It is always admirable to see filmmakers tackle new areas in their work, here’s hoping that in future Kore-Eda can implement the same level of success he has in his traditional style.

The Third Murder is out on limited release on 23rd March 2018.