If there’s a universal truth about the films of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, it’s that nothing is ever quite as it seems. The complicated moral dramas and complex family sagas that Kore-eda has been earning accolades for over the course of years are like guideposts to hopefulness, showing us how to navigate the pain of life with sincerity and grace. In that respect, Monster fits neatly into Kore-eda’s oeuvre, presenting a multi-layered tale that invites the viewers to make judgments for themselves, to bring their own biases and experiences to the table, and to take stock of the fact that life is rarely a tidy thing.
While there’s no centerpiece character to this small ensemble, the three-act story is initially driven by pre-teen Minato Mugino (Soya Kurokawa), whose sudden strange behavior has baffled his mother Saori (Sakura Ando), a widower dealing with grief while trying to keep a roof over their heads. She’s protective of her son, perhaps overprotective as she’s accused of later, but it’s for a reason. Little things about Minato are beginning to scare her; he suddenly cuts his long moppy hair, there’s a scar over his ear, and he begins to probe her with worrying questions like if a person would still be a person if they were given the brain of a pig.
Saoiri does what any mother in her position would do. She knows intuitively that something is happening to Minato at school, and so she stays on him until he admits to it. The boy blames the awkward homeroom teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama) for abusing him. This leads to a series of confrontations at school with the faculty and cold, reserved principal Makiko Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka), that are less than satisfactory. Their responses are stiff, dismissive, almost alien-like but certainly unexpected from a place of learning, but is clearly commentary on a broken educational system. They confirm what has been happening to Minato, but nobody seems to be doing anything about it. Hori is a giggling buffoon throughout most of the encounters, with the school staff trying desperately to either shut him up or hide him in the closet.
Kore-eda, working for the first time in decades from a script not his own, takes a Rashomon-like narrative and weaves a story that is both an intriguing mystery and a sweet coming-of-age story. A blazing fire kicks the story off, lighting up the night sky and setting all of the characters into place. Who set the blaze is one of many questions, but also why Mr. Hori was spotted nearby, embarrassingly, with one of the hostess girls who worked there. We come to find out that quite a few people are connected to the event, and their lives spin out from their in unpredictable ways. One of those is Minato’s classmate, Yori Hoshikawa(Hinata Hiiragi), a sweet-natured, imaginative, effeminate kid who Mr. Hori accuses Minato of bullying. Is Hori saying that just to get even with Minato for getting him in trouble at school? Or is there some truth to it? And why is Mr. Hori insinuating the worst about Saori, a single mother he doesn’t even know?
Using flashbacks and multiple perspectives, screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto weaves an intricate tale of fear and discovery. We learn more about Minato and Yori’s relationship, which is a tangled mess under the best of circumstances. Like children, they don’t always reveal all of themselves to everyone, and even the nature of their friendship is kept a secret. It’s this hidden, possibly romantic, side of themselves that has keep the adults in their lives at a distance, making irrational claims and taking unnecessarily violent actions to learn the truth. But from a child’s perspective, we understand the need for secrecy. The culture of bullying towards boys like Yori is universal. It doesn’t matter whether exploring Japanese or American attitudes. We also get why Minato, who is at the age of learning more about the kind of person he wants to be, would have complicated feelings about his closeness to Yori.
There are no hidden agendas, and nobody is painted out to be the bad guy. But what is true is that people are complicated beings who can do right for all of the wrong reasons, and do wrong for what they perceive to be the right reasons. Following in the footsteps of Kore-eda’s wonderful fantasy film I Wish, frequently escape into a surreal little corner of the world all to themselves where they are free to be as they are. And while we love seeing this side of them, they are kids, after all, and prone to displays of anger, disrespect, violence, and self-harm. So too are the grown-ups, with members of the school more interested in covering their own asses than to listen to the mother of a student. In Monster, nobody comes across as totally innocent, but there are no villains in this story.
No filmmaker gets the most out of child actors than Kore-eda, who has found two gems in Kurokawa and Hiiragi. They capture lively innocence and moodiness of youth, backed by a beautiful score by the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto that is at times melancholic and euphoric, shifting as easily as the emotions of a child.
Kore-eda and Sakomoto are in perfect sync, with Monster echoing the melodramatic aspects the filmmaker often uses as a counterbalance to the weighty, grounded emotions. A raging fire, a heavy rainstorm and a sudden avalanche that threatens to wash away the town and everyone in it. They push the characters along like chess pieces on a board, but also come across as unnaturally forced into an overlong narrative that otherwise feels very sincere and genuine. Monster is an emotionally draining but worthwhile experience. Kore-eda pulls back from the sadness and mistrust of adulthood to remind that the hopefulness of childhood is still there within us.
Monster is in theaters now.