‘Monster’ movie review: A truth in three acts in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s moral drama

‘Monster’ movie review: A truth in three acts in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s moral drama

A still from ‘Monster’

Ever since his second feature After Life that released 25 years ago, Hirokazu Kore-eda has written, directed and edited all his films. It’s worth then noting that, although he has bent his rule and handed over the writing duties on Monster to Yuji Sakamoto — a famous playwright in Japan — he has not ceded the editing process to anyone else. Monster is among the most formally intricate of Kore-eda’s films, and also his most rhythmic. We begin with a shot of a child’s feet, wading through grass, then see firetrucks, then a building on fire, then an entire cityscape lit up at night. Several of these images will recur in the film — from different vantage points — and Kore-eda will take both a master and a film enthusiast’s delight in shifting these perspectives around.

The raging flames are first witnessed from their balcony by single mother Saori (Shoplifters’s Sakura Ando) and her school-going preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa). Distractedly, Minato asks a strange question — something about transplanting a pig’s brain in a human’s head — that unsettles Saori. From here on, she begins to observe troubling changes in his behaviour; he shears off his locks, spills his belongings, acts sleepy and sullen and withdrawn. He could be any young kid acting out the onset of adolescence, but Saori senses more. After a night of frantic searching, she finds him out in the woods, alone in a dark tunnel, screaming, “Who is the monster?”

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The most obvious and tempting answer seems to be Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), Minato’s homeroom teacher. After Minato claims to his mother that he was hit in class by his instructor, Saori approaches the school for an explanation. She is offered an apology instead — a comically absurd scene with Mr. Hori and the other teachers bowing in unison — as Kore-eda sends up the ritual politesse of formal institutions in Japan. Even as we share in Saori’s anger and astonishment at the apparent maltreatment of her child, and what looks like a cover-up on the school’s part, our sympathies are left hanging. We learn, for instance, that school principal Makiko (Yūko Tanaka) has recently lost a grandchild—she appears as adrift and unstable as young Minato. “Your son is a bully,” Mr. Hori tells Saori during a later confrontation, bringing up the boy’s treatment of a classmate, a sweet misfit named Eri.

Monster (Japanese)

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Cast: Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Yūko Tanaka

Run-time: 125 minutes

Storyline: A single mother persistently seeks answers after her preteen son begins to exhibit violent and unstable behaviour at school and home

It’s a little past this point that the narrative rewinds and resets to the day of the fire. Mr. Hori, far from emerging the ‘monster’ of the title, is revealed to be a caring and concerned teacher — asking after his pupils, prioritising their futures over his own reputation. Later in the film, we get a third and final perspective shift, as the same events play out from the viewpoint of Minato and Eri’s budding friendship. This approach by Kore-eda and Sakamoto has been likened to the Rashomon effect — both fairly and unavoidably, since it was popularised by their Japanese forebear, director Akira Kurosawa.

But where the point of Rashomon (1950) was to challenge and complicate our relationship with the nature of objective truth, the purpose of Monster is really to simplify it. The film underlines how often the simplest explanations can elude our eyes, obscured by layers of fear, prejudice, and mutual suspicion. Unfolding in a modern age, where heteronormative codes are reinforced by mass media and figures of authority and rumour-mongering abounds, the film indicts not people but words; it depicts how the subtle cruelties of language — whether by accident or intent — can have the most devastating effect.

Monster is the first film since Shoplifters (2018) that Kore-eda has set in his native Japan. It has all his pet imageries and tropes—Minato demanding some privacy from Saori to talk to his late father’s portrait is quintessential Kore-eda. Reuniting with Shoplifters cinematographer Kondo Ryuto, Kore-eda once again creates an emotionally acute, intimately observed world, helped by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s mournful, gorgeously elemental score. Sakamoto passed away earlier this year to cancer. Monster honours the legendary composer in its closing credits, but also through a scene where music literally saves a soul. It is a fitting tribute in a film that counts among its preoccupations the idea of regeneration and rebirth.

Monster was screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023

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