‘Monster’ Review: Hirokazu Kore-eda Riffs on ‘Rashomon’ in a Poignant Melodrama About Rushing to Judgment

Scary as it sounds, “monster” can be such a strangely comforting word. Not only does classifying someone as inhuman absolve us from acknowledging the most difficult aspects of our shared humanity, it also reaffirms the smallness and simplicity of an infinitely complex universe that continues to expand no matter how much we might want to wrap our arms around it. “Monster” is a period at the end of a sentence; it’s the permission we give ourselves to demonize whatever we don’t understand.

And, for all of those reasons, it’s also a very unexpected title for a new feature by the great Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose achingly humanistic stories of families lost and found (e.g. “Shoplifters,” “Still Walking,” “After the Storm”) have never had any use for such a stiflingly judgmental term. And yet, in the wake of a pandemic that exacerbated so many of society’s worst impulses, Kore-eda felt compelled to make a film that dismantles it completely. 

A dense and looping melodrama that spirals towards its core idea with the centrifugal force of a Christopher Nolan movie, “Monster” is one of those movies that — from its title on down — invites the audience’s worst assumptions of its characters so that it can show us our blind spots when the story eventually circles back to fill in the blanks.

Paul Haggis’ “Crash” may be an unkind comparison for a film that just as frequently evokes the likes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” but it’s not an altogether unfair one, as some of the more contrived moments in Yuji Sakamoto’s script betray a didacticism that has seldom appeared in Kore-eda’s previous work. At the same time, however, this knotted yarn about misunderstood kids at the mercy of a reactionary adult world also contains moments of heart-piercing sensitivity so honest and true that even the most dedicated Kore-eda fans might not realize that he didn’t write it himself.

“Monster” is the only movie that Kore-eda has made in his native Japan since winning the Palme d’Or for “Shopkeepers” in 2018 (“The Truth” was set in France, and last year’s “Broker” in South Korea), but his decision to direct someone else’s script for the first time since 1995’s “Maboroshi” suggests a filmmaker who’s still eager to push himself out of his comfort zone. So does the film’s opening chapter, which summons a different (and far more disturbing) shade of darkness than he previously invoked in the likes of “Distance” or “The Third Murder.” 

“Monster” begins with a deliberate fire at a hostess bar in a lakeside Japanese town, and the identity of the arsonist responsible becomes the biggest of several mysteries in a movie whose narrative is sustained by the inertia of unanswered questions. Our first suspect: A sullen and shaggy-haired fifth-grader named Minato (Soya Kurokawa, another in Kore-eda’s seemingly infinite supply of immaculate child actors), whose widowed single mother Saori (“Shoplifters” stunner Sakura Ando) is already concerned by her son’s recent behavior. 

Minato’s newfound demands for privacy are par for the course at that age, and Saori has no reason to believe that her son is assembling molotov cocktails behind his locked bedroom door, but Ando searches her co-star’s face with the agitated discomfort of a parent realizing that they don’t know everything about their kid’s life anymore. As Minato begins to complain about bullying, repeat cryptic things he heard at school, and suggest that he was physically assaulted by a teacher named Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), Saori’s anxiety inflates to existential proportions. 

By the time Minato pulls a Lady Bird and barrel rolls out of his mom’s moving car, “Monster” is halfway towards becoming a full-blown horror movie about a mother’s fear of losing her son to forces beyond her control, and Kore-eda — expertly inverting his usual empathies — mines a wicked degree of everyday terror from the sequence in which Saori goes to Minato’s school for a meeting with the principal. It’s here that Kore-eda first begins to expand on the definition of his film’s title, broadening it to accommodate all manner of the unknown.

Considering the weight that Sakamoto’s script will later put on the word “alien” in a very different context, the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” vibe of Saori’s parent-educator sit-down feels eerily deliberate. Hori himself, smiling and haphazard, acts like he’s never interacted with a human before, and the fact that he teaches all of his classes in a tracksuit doesn’t exactly do anything to ease Saori’s concern. Everyone at the school reacts to her complaint as if Hori just hit her kid in the face by accident (“We’ll learn from our mistake” is a common refrain), and the feeling that she’s entered some kind of bizarro world only grows more pronounced with the first of the film’s many unreliable reveals: Her precious Minato isn’t being bullied, he’s the one doing the bullying. We’re told that Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), a cheerfully androgynous classmate prone to wearing frilly jumpers, is actually the victim in all this.  

It’s around then that “Monster” doubles back around to the start in order to depict the same period of time from Hori’s perspective, a trick that will be repeated in several different ways as it comes to define the film’s figure-eight structure. The shift from one POV to another is never absolute — “Monster” isn’t as neatly divided among its characters as something like “Rashomon,” nor does it have the same interest in challenging the objective fact of its events — but each cycle through this story complicates what we know by giving us more information, as the creeping dread of Saori’s chapter gives way to a more ambiguous kind of social unease. It’s an approach informed by the gaps in our understanding of each other, and one that both mimics and triggers the human tendency to bridge those gaps in bad faith whenever that might be the easiest way to make sense of the unknown. 

Needless to say, Mr. Hori may not be as cruel as Saori assumed. In fact, there’s something frustratingly predictable about the way that many of this film’s most odious characters are redeemed by additional context, as the opposite almost never proves true. The one major exception to that rule involves the story’s most heinous rumor, which pans out in a way poignant enough to deserve its own movie (thus making its awkward integration into this one that much more of a sore spot), but all of these bombshells turn out to be in the service of the film’s most obvious and tender reveal. That truth is hinted at throughout, but its final confirmation is powerful enough to recategorize the entire movie around it as it finds Kore-eda pushing himself even deeper into territory he’s never really explored before.

“Monster” clearly has a lot on its mind, and its jumbled chronology isn’t always well-suited to make room for everything this film is trying to do. The script’s destabilizing structure has a tendency to soften the impact of otherwise piercing moments — as is often the case with stories that don’t let you in on what they’re really about until their dying minutes — and some of the sacrifices it makes while scraping closer to the “monstrousness” feel too severe to justify the structural conceit. Ando’s performance peaks with a bone-shivering display of muted parental horror at the end of the film’s initial time loop, and her frequent absences from the remainder of the film are so pronounced that it seems like Kore-eda has forgotten something along the way. 

But “Monster” also takes advantage of its strange chronology in some powerfully unexpected ways. A stray shoe acquires an extra layer of heartsick meaning every time someone tries it on, while the sound of an errant trombone blast from the school music room echoes with rich new resonance after we learn who it came from. The universe always keeps expanding, one character explains, and time will reverse itself once the whole thing finally snaps. Perhaps then, Kore-eda suggests, the “wrongness” that people use to explain the things we don’t fully comprehend — in each other and themselves — will be reversed as well, and even the misunderstood characters at the heart of this unusual film will be reborn into the people they always were.

Grade: B

“Monster” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *