Monster (2023)

A kinder, gentler ‘Monster’

Hirokazu Kore-eda has arguably been Japan’s most successful filmmaker of the new millennia, scoring high praise and solid box office for such gems as “Shoplifters,” “After the Storm” and last year’s “Broker.” Thankfully, there is no letting up, as evidenced by his latest (now in theaters), which borrows structurally from fellow countryman Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, “Rashomon.” It lacks some of the bite and gravitas of Kore-eda’s earlier films, likely because he farms his usual writing duties out to Yuji Sakamoto. But I can’t deny “Monster” packs a disorienting emotional punch.

The story revolves around four people: a widowed mother, her 11-year-old son, his bullied classmate and a newbie elementary school teacher who you’re initially led to believe is the movie’s title character. But don’t acquiesce to that assumption; your perceptions and loyalties are sure to evolve as the film progresses. Like “Rashomon,” Kore-eda presents the same story from multiple perspectives, beginning with Saori, played poignantly by “Shoplifters” scene-stealer Sakura Ando.

Recently widowed, she struggles to raise her fifth-grader son, Minato (the wonderfully expressive Soya Kurakowa), while toiling at a neighborhood dry cleaner. One night Minato returns from school with his nose swollen and his left ear bleeding. He tells Mom his injuries were inflicted by his new teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). But were they? He certainly appears guilty given what Saori gleens from sheepish school administrators who lavish her with phony apologies in hopes she will just go away.

The meetings Saori attends with Hori and his feeble bosses are laughable, particularly in how representative they are of teachers around the world, forced to walk on tiptoes so as not to risk offending their young charges. You’re as appalled as Saori by the administration’s spineless buck-passing demeanor. But hold on.

At around the 45-minute mark, the screen goes black and the story starts all over again, beginning with a massive arson fire at a nearby high-rise. This time, we experience the events through Hori’s eyes, and they are quite different indeed, as the man’s life descends into chaos, and he is threatened with the loss of his reputation and possibly his sanity. Is he still the monster, if there is one at all?

Just wait, as the story unfolds a third time by virtue of Minato, who we discover has secretly befriended his smallest and most vulnerable classmate, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi). The mystery of why Minato refuses to recognize Yori at school is something Kore-eda keeps close to the vest until late in a much-debated third act. Ultimately, what does it all mean? I’m not saying but have a tissue or two on hand as the heart-wrenching truth is finally revealed.

Yes, this is one of Kore-eda’s lesser works, but it still resonates, especially in its effective reflection of a world where conclusions are quickly jumped to, most often in error. And Kore-eda hauntingly depicts the dire consequences of these actions when allowed to escalate. It ultimately got to me, as did the marvelous score by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, to whom the film is dedicated. If it is Kore-eda’s plea for us all to be a little kinder and more understanding, message received.

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for brief suggestive and thematic material

Cast: Sakura Ando, Soya Kurakowa, Eita Nagayama and Hinata Hiiragi

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Writer: Yuji Sakamoto

Runtime: 126 minutes

Grade: A-


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