Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest gem, “Monster,” begins on an enormous inferno. The facade of a hostess club is engulfed in flames of mysterious origin, attracting everyone from curious neighbors to squealing children chasing down roaring fire engines to witness the chaos. But such a fire can be traced back to its igniting spark, and “Monster” delicately examines how, like a growing flame, seemingly innocuous falsehoods can spiral into total destruction.
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Working with a different screenplay not written by himself since his feature debut, “Mabrosi,” Kore-eda’s film (this time penned by Yuji Sakamoto) takes a slight departure from his recent streak of dramas centering on the importance of connection and families in its disparate configurations. Where those stories have erred on earnest — perhaps even too saccharine if you’re one of his detractors — “Monster” plays, at first, like a darker but simple mystery, only to transform into something all the more compelling.
At first, “Monster” ostensibly presents itself as a statement on institutional corruption. Single mother Maori (Sakura Ando) grows worried about the strange behavior her son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) is exhibiting. Once a quiet, sweet pre-teen boy, Minato is now cycling off to their sleepy town’s nearby forest at night and jumping out of a moving car. When Saori hears that her son’s teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama), is bullying him to the point of physical violence, she visits the school repeatedly to demand justice. The response from the school is baffling, bordering on enraging, as the principal and Hori offer ambivalent, pre-written apologies without any promises to improve Minato’s time at school. Ando, a devastating highlight of Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters,” proves to be equally as heartbreaking here, as her teary-eyed face is framed within the staff’s suited bodies bowing in faux-politeness.
There’s evidently more to the school’s noncommittal behavior that explains itself as the film progresses, in tandem with the many elusive details the story drops: a lighter, a rogue shoe missing its other, a water bottle filled with dirt, a bruise on an arm. Taking a mental note of every loose thread “Monster” introduces is a demanding task that may confuse some viewers, but it’s an immensely satisfying and emotionally resonant watch to see how the pieces fit together.
Beyond its opening blaze, natural disaster seems to permeate “Monster.” A typhoon strikes a quaint Japanese city, causing Saori and Minato to dutifully tape cardboard to their windows, and the film revisits a torrential mudslide that Minato finds himself in the middle of. Like “After The Storm,” in which calamitous conditions repair a broken family, a downpour brings Saori and her increasingly unreadable son together while threatening to tear them apart. This mudslide also bookends the film’s three chapters, each taking different perspectives of the story’s events, from Saori’s to Mr. Hori’s and finally to Minato’s, in a framing device not unlike Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.”
By viewing each character’s point of view, we learn this is not all that it seems with Minato’s inciting accusation. Hori may not be so guilty after all, while Minato’s lies mask some deeper truths he’s unable to confront, leading him to suppress himself in outwardly destructive ways. Monsters are a frequent point of discussion, but Kore-eda — who so often thrives in exploring everyday folks at their grayest — is not one to reduce these characters to simplistic characterizations. In that sense, its title is something of a misdirect, leading us to wonder who the titular beast is. Could it be Hori? Minato? The education system? Kore-eda leads us to shift our alliances throughout, but his film posits that no one can genuinely be monstrous when observed from the right perspective.
If Ando is an early standout, the true anchor of “Monster” is Soya Kurokawa, who delivers a quietly moving performance as Minato. He shines brightest in a beautiful third act that will inevitably garner comparisons to Lukas Dhont’s tear-jerking competition entry from last year, “Close,” swinging from moments of tender infatuation to explosive outbursts while remaining entirely believable. Here, the monster comes from within, as Minato wrestles with accepting the person he’s becoming compared to the petty bully his classmates push him to be.
Buoyed by a gentle piano score from the late and great Ryuichi Sakamoto, “Monster” may perhaps not strike as painfully in the heart as Kore-eda’s more lauded works like “Shoplifters” and “Like Father, Like Son.” But the director’s return to his native Japan following detours to France (“The Truth”) and South Korea (“Broker”) demonstrates that he is as adept at puppeteering an audience’s empathy as ever. [A-]
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