Producers: Genki Kawamura, Kenji Yamada, Megumi Banse, Taichi Ito and Hijiri Taguchi Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda Screenplay: Yuji Sakamoto Cast: Sakura Andō, Eita Nagayama, Sōya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi, Yūko Tanaka, Akihiro Tsunoda, Mitsuki Takahata and Shidō Nakamura Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Different perspectives merge in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Monster,” a film whose tripartite construction proves deceptive, leading one to expectations that are then upended.
The first third of the film is told from the POV of Saori Mugino (Sakura Andō), a widow living with her adolescent son Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) in a coastal Japanese town. It begins with an event that recurs later in the complex scenario by Yuji Sakamoto, the burning of a building some distance from the Mugino apartment. It’s a place that houses a “hostess club,” where lonely men go for companionship, which could explain why someone might have torched it.
Mother and son watch the blaze from their patio. It’s the conclusion of a day when Minato had gotten home late from school, without one of his shoes and with a new bruise. The boy’s already been acting strangely, posing questions about his father’s possible reincarnation while they remember his birthday. Now he’s asking whether a pig’s brain can be implanted in a boy. And when Minato actually does something harmful to himself, Saori forces him to confess that he was struck by his homeroom teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), who, he says, also belittled him.
Furious, Saori goes to the school to demand an explanation. She’s met by a ritualistic apology from the principal, Mrs. Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka) and the other teachers, including, in the end, Hori. But he also informs her that her son is a bully who’s been mistreating Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), his smaller classmate.
The perspective now shifts to Hori, who is rumored to have patronized that hostess club—and, indeed, is involved with Hirona (Mitsuki Takahata), who works there. He is in fact concerned about how Yori is treated—he even has visited the boy’s father (Shidō Nakamura), but found the possibly abusive man frankly unresponsive, and his recollection of how Minato was struck is very different from what Saori has imagined. But as news about his abuse of a student spreads, it threatens his job and leads Hirona to drop him.
As the perspective shifts to Minato, things take a very different slant. It would be unfair to reveal what the boy has experienced; suffice it to say that how the adults have interpreted events is extremely dubious. There’s a revelation about that recurrent fire, and also a scene that forces us to reassess our view of Principal Fushimi, whom Saori had seen tripping a rambunctious kid in the supermarket. She had only just returned to work after taking a break to grieve for her grandson, recently killed in a car accident; but there are rumors that the person responsible for the boy’s may have been misidentified. Now we see her reaching out a helping hand to Minato when the boy was at his lowest.
That scene between them can be dismissed as mawkish, and the entire final act of the film, which involves a typhoon, a mudslide, an unlikely collaboration between people who have been hostile to each other, and a bucolic sprint through the sunlight, will be deemed as alternately melodramatic and saccharine by some viewers. But it’s all part of Kore-eda’s plan to lead us to an appreciation of the complexities of the human condition, the misunderstandings that blind people in their attitudes toward others and, finally, the perils and pains of childhood. The result is a deeply humane film that, if one has the patience to unpack it, proves both touching and strangely uplifting, despite all the trouble and turmoil it portrays. It invites us to identify which of the characters the title refers to while making an easy answer impossible.
“Monster” is artfully constructed by Kore-eda, who not only directed but edited, and marked by expert work from production designer Keiko Mitsumatsu (especially notable in the fantasy-touched railroad car sequences toward the close) and cinematographer Ryuto Kondo; the plaintive score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, his last, adds to the moving atmosphere.
Kore-eda also secures telling performances from his cast. Those of the adults are excellent, but his work with the children is especially remarkable. Both Kurokawa and Hiiragi are extraordinary, and the others who make up their classmates are raucously realistic as well. That’s a skill Kore-eda already demonstrated in his remarkable “Shoplifters,” and it’s evident here as well.
“Monster” is a film of fascinating complexity and compelling artistry.