However you view the events of Monster‘s first act is far from how they’ll appear after the film’s third. It’s a slow reveal from multiple perspectives from Shoplifters director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who returns with this exceptionally detailed and deeply moving drama, connecting individual versions of the same events to inform a broader, more complex picture.
Like his Palme D’Or winning 2018 film, Monster continues the Japanese director’s mastery of steadily revealed, subtle mysteries woven into the everyday lives of ordinary people, leading to devastating, joyous, and liberating pivots for the characters. It’s undeniably cliche to throw out an “everything is not what it seems”, but with Monster, it’s the whole point. Where Kore-eda examined themes of class and family in Shoplifters, he examines the power of perspective and context in Monster.
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Notably, each act comes beautifully embedded with an emotionally fluctuating score delivered by late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Monster is his final work, as he died two months before its release.
What is Monster about?
The premise for Monster seems simple, but the rollout is anything but. Cannes’ best screenplay writer Yûji Sakamoto presents three perspectives over three acts, examining the course of events between an apartment fire and an intense typhoon. The core characters orbit this headline-making inferno in their own lives at first, then their own stories unfold and intersect at a local elementary school.
First, we meet widow, single mother, and laundry worker Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) who becomes concerned for her son Minato’s (Sōya Kurokawa) wellbeing when his behaviour becomes erratic. Connecting these changes with his teacher, Michitoshi Hori (Eita Nagayama), Saori confronts the principal, Makiko Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka), and encounters the school’s closed-rank tactic of diverting responsibility. But the truth behind Minato’s experiences becomes muddled when his classmate Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi) shows signs of being bullied, and the quest for the truth becomes more complicated.
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As Minato’s sagacious, empathetic, and fiercely loving mother, Ando mirrors the audience’s bafflement over her son’s behaviour and the school’s reaction to allegations — her repetition of the phrase “what the fuck?” is deeply relatable and almost forms the inner monologue of the viewer. When Saori’s complaint is dismissed as a “misunderstanding” by the school, it’s nothing less than infuriating and impersonal. But it’s not the full picture, despite the facts at play.
Sakamoto’s tale is expertly edited by Koreeda, threading seemingly innocuous moments through each act to form a full picture. And while the title of the film suggests the promise of a monster afoot, this label takes on a more fluid power over the chapters — exactly who identifies as a monster, who is treated like one, and who acts like one become extremely different things.
Monster is subtle masterpiece of perspective
Over the course of three acts, Monster uses subtle markers to tilt the audience’s knowledge of events, showing how additional details can change the meaning and intention of someone’s actions. Minato’s bewildering decisions take on a larger, noble purpose with added context. “Wrong place, wrong time,” becomes everything to the characters, who are more often than not deemed guilty from appearances. What seems like evidence of criminal activity becomes innocent happenstance from an opposing viewpoint. The sound of brass instruments resonate through simultaneous moments in the timeline.
As Koreeda delivers a steady reveal of the film’s core questions, what begins almost as a psychological horror film moves into investigative drama, then emerges into a vulnerable examination of childlike innocence, running from kindness to cruelty. Notably, Kore-eda makes considerable use of the difference between a child’s perspective and that of an adult. Alongside Ando, Nagayama is deeply compelling as the polarising teacher Hori, as is Tanaka as the abstruse Principal Fushimi. But the real stars of the show are the film’s youngest, Kurokawa and Hiiragi as the seemingly troubled Minato and delightfully whimsical Yori. Assumptions, confusions, and technicalities around Minato and Yori’s relationship become the core of the film, and the young actors allow their characters complete vulnerability when it matters.
The way the parents and teachers see events is wildly different to how the students do. Ryûto Kondô’s cinematography finds the core of every character, whether lingering on Saori’s quizzical face trying to understand her son or the school board, or running through the forest with freedom and childlike wonder with Minato and Yori. Here, Sakamoto’s script perfectly captures the imaginative surrealism and unfiltered bluntness of children’s conversations, wonderfully performed by Kurokawa and Hiiragi. Topics revolve rapidly from the expansion of the universe to the realities of family life to butts and poop, all in one afternoon. And all the while, having seen where the story ends up every time in each act, you’re left in a deeply troubling place as an audience, suspecting what’s ahead with no ability to stop it.
However, whatever you believe is happening in Monster, whoever you think people are, there’s always more to the story. People are more complex than their actions in the film, though they’re rarely understood, more often wrongfully accused of being the titular beasts. If Monster doesn’t make you think twice about perspective, you might do to see things from another angle.
Monster was reviewed out of the BFI London Film Festival. The film will hit cinemas in late 2023 or early 2024.