‘Monster’ Review: Kore-eda Hirokazu Hides Surprise Plea for Acceptance Beneath Much Darker Themes

In film after film, from “Nobody Knows” to “Shoplifters,” Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu has proven himself to be among the medium’s most humanistic directors, inclined to see the best in people, especially children. So how to reconcile the way “Monster” makes us feel?

Returning to his native Japan after helming two relatively disappointing features abroad (“Broker” and “The Truth”), the 2018 Palme d’Or winner opens his latest Cannes competition entry with a building on fire — a “hostess bar” where lonely men seek female company — and fifth-grade Minato (Kurokawa Soya) watching the inferno from a nearby balcony. Kore-eda will return to this scene three times over the course of the film, folding the narrative back upon itself from a different angle each time, before finally revealing who set the blaze.

The title misleads for a time, inviting us to speculate about the darkness that surrounds young Minato. Could a child have been the culprit? What makes someone a “monster”? More troubling still, what would lead an 11-year-old to adopt such a label for himself? Those and a hundred other questions swirl in our brains as Kore-eda presents a shape-shifting and occasionally hard-to-follow portrait of a troubled boy, his single mom Saori (Ando Sakura), eccentric schoolteacher Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita) and various other characters, every one of which proves to be far more complex and unknowable than we might first assume.

When the explanation for Minato’s behavior finally does emerge, it comes from left field, but pulls so many of the movie’s other mysteries together … except for one: Why would Kore-eda choose such a convoluted way of telling this particular story? By sharing only select pieces of each character’s private life, he all but obliges us to leap to incorrect conclusions, distracting with topics such as bullying, aggression and suicide when the real subject — how children are socialized, and the unfair pressures this puts on anyone who doesn’t fit the norm — is so much simpler than any of the intriguing dimensions teased along the way.

Quite late in the film, it’s suggested that Minato has feelings for a boy in his class named Yori (Hiiragi Hinata). He doesn’t know how to deal with those emotions, which sparks so much of the confusion compounded by screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji’s nonlinear structure. In the first segment, we’re encouraged to suspect something far more sinister, as “Monster” presents Minato’s situation from his mom’s point of view. She’s a fairly attentive parent, doing her best to raise her son after her husband’s death, but even she misses the clues, like a triggering TV commercial that echoes taunts Minato hears at school.

When Saori finally realizes something’s wrong, she calls a meeting with the school principal (Tanaka Yuko). Believing Minato’s claim that Mr. Hori is responsible for the way he feels, Saori demands to know what kind of school lets a teacher insult and hit the students. As the slight wisps of one of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s last compositions underscores her concern, Saori’s heart (and ours) breaks a little to hear her son say, “My brain was switched with a pig’s.”

Obviously, someone must have put that idea in Minato’s head, but we can’t possibly know enough at this point to comprehend his turmoil. The malicious “pig’s brain” comment eventually traces back to a hardly seen side character. The trouble is, Minato believes it about himself, and fear of being found out drives a wedge in his friendship with Yori — a theme previous explored in last year’s Cannes breakout “Close.” Neither film quite knows how to deal with the idea that some kids can sense at a very young age when they’re not wired like their peers, and so long as prepubescent queerness remains such a touchy subject, identifying as such remains incredibly difficult.

About 45 minutes into the film, Kore-eda allows us to think something terrible has happened to Minato amid a typhoon, before resetting the timeline and taking another look from Mr. Hori’s vantage. There’s a “Rashomon” quality to that strategy, although the events themselves don’t change, only the perspective does, as Kore-eda demonstrates how easy it is to jump to false conclusions about other people (especially when misdirected to do so by a manipulative screenplay). In short order, we realize Minato misled his mother. “Monster” is less clear about why the boy might have lied, subtly observing as Mr. Hori teases his students with remarks like “Are you a real man?” and assigns them essays about who they want to marry when they grow up.

In the third and final run-through, Kore-eda rewinds and replays things once again, this time with a more omniscient understanding of his characters’ motives. We learn that the school principal, whom Saori witnessed tripping a rambunctious child at the local supermarket, has a devastating secret of her own. In the film’s most touching scene, Minato confesses to her, and she assures him, “Happiness is something anyone can have.” From here on, “Monster” stops messing with us and reveals its message. The typhoon hits town for a third time, and instead of suggesting that the boy might be in danger — of self-harm or drowning — the sun comes out. And so does Minato’s secret. “Monster” might have ended terribly, when in fact, Kore-eda’s humanist instinct has been at work all along.

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