“Who’s the monster?” is the question at the heart of Monster (2023), the latest family drama by acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Broker, 2022 and Shoplifters, 2018).
The story is a cautionary tale about the harm of victimizing (or sanctifying) the targets of gossip, slander, bullying, homophobia and abuse without first analyzing the angles.
This vulnerable, intricately woven story is centred around Minato (Soya Kurokawa), a fifth-grade student wrestling with inner demons, and an alleged bully-teacher who his mother targets as the source of Minato’s sudden personality change.
Floating between a sparse soundtrack of late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s minimalist “Dies iræ”-themed score – less menacing than sombre – and screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto’s nuanced dialog, Kore-eda guides his actors through the silent spaces to build tension and meaning.
The film is smoothly divided into three acts, the first establishing Saori, the youthful, carefree widowed mother of Minato, played by Sakura Ando.
The first scene opens on a highrise ablaze in slow motion against a night sky. Cut to Saori, who contrasts the slow drama of the fiery scene, bounding gleefully across her and Minato’s apartment to cheer on the firefighters from her balcony.
Minato joins and watches distractedly, delivering the first of many lines in the film that refer to the possibility of a pig’s head being transplanted into a human body.
“Is it a human or a pig?” he asks his mother of the proposed creature. Cradled in both Ando’s keen acting instincts and the screenwriter’s skillful hand, Saori delivers a response that appears as a throwaway but later reveals itself as the most telling of the film.
Act 1 closes with Minato’s ascension into oddity. It crescendos with a leap from Saori’s moving car after she finds him “alone” in a culvert by the side of the road repeatedly yelling “who’s the monster?”
After some interrogation, Minato implies that his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayami) has been abusing him, which leads his mother down a rabbit trail of blame-shaming, suspicion and outrage at the school’s mishandling of the situation.
Ando’s performance is brilliantly understated as she moves effortlessly from beat to beat. She transitions from the free-spirited young woman at the top of the film into an investigative mama-bear, aggressively batting away the school administrative team’s perceived gaslighting attempts to protect their own.
The second act challenges perspectives and restarts the story from Mr. Hori’s timeline. In the third act, the account truly blossoms through the tender reveal of Minato’s deep secret that finally unlocks the film’s mysteries.
The standout performance belongs to young Kurokawa, who plays the complexities of interpersonal relationships with the depth and emotional intelligence of someone much older.
Monster is not about what the film sets audiences up for initially. It takes the viewer through a compelling, well-paced, at times (though forgivably) contrived morality tale smartly delivered in a visually beautiful package that lingers in the imagination long after the story ends.
Published in Volume 78, Number 16 of The Uniter (February 1, 2024)