After making The Truth in France and Broker in South Korea, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to a Japanese-language project for the first time since his justly lauded Shoplifters five years ago, working with another writer’s script for the first time since his head-turning 1995 debut, Maborosi. Many of the peerless humanist’s frequent themes figure in Monster (Kaibutsu) — loss, isolation, the elusive nature of happiness and the struggles of imperfect families — viewed through a somewhat imposing multi-perspective Rashomon-esque prism. The director’s customary delicacy, compassion and sensitivity ripple through the drama, though its affecting moments of illumination are more intermittent than cumulative.
With its fragmented exploration of childhood bullying, stigma, peer pressure and homophobia, as well as the age of its young protagonists, Monster vaguely recalls Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Close from last year, albeit with more restraint and less sentiment, for better or worse. It’s a frustrating film in many ways, never quite emotionally satisfying, but its underlying melancholy, pierced by poignant depictions of the solace of friendship, make it worthwhile.
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The movie opens with a blazing fire lighting up the night sky, destroying a building in a small regional city (the unidentified setting is Suwa on the shores of a lake in the Nagano prefecture). One floor of the building houses a hostess bar, and the rumored presence there that night of a new teacher at a local elementary school, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), deepens the shadow cast across him through much of the narrative.
Nearby resident Saori (Sakura Ando, from Shoplifters) watches with her preteen son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) from their apartment balcony as fire engines converge on the scene. Saori is a sharp-edged but loving mother living on modest means; she encourages Minato to honor his late father’s memory, humoring him with his fanciful questions about reincarnation.
There’s a nagging — if no doubt deliberate — opaque aspect to the early scenes as Minato is late returning from school and a panicked Saori finds him behaving strangely, wandering in a woodland storm drain and muttering the sing-song refrain, “Who is the monster?” Saori learns that he has been disciplined, and mildly injured, by his homeroom teacher Mr. Hori for apparently acting out in class, and she descends on the school in a cold fury, demanding answers.
A thread running through the original screenplay by Yuji Sakamoto illustrates how traditional Japanese reticence can muddy the truth, whether out of formality, shame or the desire to spare someone’s feelings. This comes through in the invigoratingly spiky scenes where a fired-up Saori confronts the carefully composed school principal, Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka), a dignified older woman who recently lost her grandson in tragic circumstances. She acknowledges the school’s responsibility, but reveals little, reading prepared statements before stepping away and leaving Saori to deal with three men on the faculty.
When Hori humbly apologies, first directly to Saori and then in front of the assembled 5th grade students’ parents, the matter would appear to be closed. But a shift from the perspective of Saori to Hori reveals the situation to be not so straightforward, raising questions about Minato’s relationship with another student, Yori (Hinata Hiragi). That kid is a frequent target of class bullying, being raised by his divorced father, a possibly abusive drunk.
Sakamoto’s screenplay builds low-key intrigue by intimating that the teachers feel they are being quietly crucified, shouldering blame for false transgressions to keep complaining parents quiet and avoid reprisals from the education board. This is echoed in the rumor that Fushimi has kept her professional reputation intact by scapegoating her husband in the death of their grandson.
Only in the final section, which shifts again to Minato’s perspective, does the nuanced nature of the two boys’ bond become clear. This extended passage is the most direct and by far the most effective part of the drama, balancing Minato’s affection for the odd, determinedly cheery Yori with the need to keep his distance at school in order to avoid rejection himself.
In one beautiful scene, Principal Fushimi and Minato guardedly unburden themselves to each other, providing valuable insight into the social constraints on both adult and child. But it’s primarily in the interludes of refuge shared by Minato and Yori, roaming the woods or hanging out in an abandoned train carriage there, that the boys find sanctuary and the movie gets past its cumbersome structure to transmit Kore-eda’s characteristic empathy and tenderness.
Performances are lovely across the board, reaping rewards from the director’s unimpeachable skill at working with children. The visuals are unfussy and naturalistic but emotionally resonant in images like the two friends running joyfully across a stretch of sun-dappled green. The drama is complemented throughout by a gentle score of piano and occasional atonal horns by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, to whom the film, his final project, is dedicated.
Monster is not a major Kore-eda entry, no doubt withholding too much to work completely, but for admirers of the director’s films, there are pleasures to be found.
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