Monster (Japan, 2023)

December 14, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Monster Poster

There are a lot of things going on during the course of the two hours comprising the running time of Monster, but the most forceful is the issue of perspective. How the narrative evolves is highly dependent on the point-of-view of the narrator and the viewer doesn’t have the whole picture until well into the third act. Although it’s likely that director Hirokazu Kore-eda and screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto were influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon, Monster is no mere re-hashing of the 1950 film’s themes and ideas. Whereas Rashomon’s thesis emphasized the unreliability of an individual’s perception of an event, Monster examines how a lack of perspective (or a limited perspective) can skew how someone interprets incidents or relationships.

The film is expertly made, with the viewer’s understanding of circumstances and characters evolving as the screenplay gradually reveals more about key incidents by expanding the canvas to provide additional details and background. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, everything has shifted. We have a radically different interpretation of many of the things that seemed concrete during the first act. Even the movie’s title, Monster, undergoes changes in its meaning. In the end, although there is a candidate deserving of the name, the probing question seems to be whether anyone in this story deserves to be so labeled.

Monster opens with a building fire observed from a distance by single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) and her son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa). This seemingly unrelated incident becomes a touchstone that is repeatedly referenced throughout the film. Over the next few days, Saori notices things about her son’s behavior and demeanor that concern her and she suspects that he may be the victim of bullying at school. Additional investigation uncovers a possible culprit: Minato’s homeroom teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). When Saori takes her concerns to the school’s principal (Makiko Fushimi), she receives what she believes to be an unsatisfactory response and aggressively seeks to have Mr. Hori removed from his position. But there are odd gaps in this part of the story and, as we see when the point-of-view shifts to that of Mr. Hori, there are things Saori isn’t privy to, such as the relationship between Minato and classmate Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), problems in Hori’s personal life, and the truth about why the principal is so detached.

Because the three different perspectives presented in Monster occasionally overlap, Kore-eda uses certain common circumstances (such as the building fire) as ways to establish time frames. And, although there is some repetition, it’s not egregious. The film’s purpose isn’t to re-tell the same events. There is some of this but each storyline moves the overall narrative forward.

Kore-eda has a history of taking seemingly simple stories and giving them unexpected depth and complexity. In Like Father Like Son, arguably his most accomplished production, the director explored the family dynamics resulting from a “switched-at-birth” situation and whether a blood-relationship is more important than the years of emotional and physical investment in the development of a child. That degree of probing intelligence – of asking questions with no easy answers – is evident in Monster. The movie posits real-life situations in which well-intentioned people erroneously jump to conclusions because they don’t have the full picture. The implications and consequences are delineated in how one character sees their life crumble.

Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay is brilliantly conceived in that it forces the viewer to re-evaluate their expectations as new information is presented. There are moments of mystery and suspense but there’s also an underlying sweetness in some of the relationships. Monster touches on many different aspects of the human experience. It’s challenging but neither inaccessible nor impossibly dense. Kore-eda invites intellectual engagement but doesn’t leave the viewer unrewarded. This is one of the year’s best movies – the third time in the last decade I have made that statement about one of the director’s productions.

Monster (Japan, 2023)

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi, Yuko Tanaka
Screenplay: Yuji Sakamoto
Cinematography: Ryuto Kondo
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
U.S. Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2023-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Adult Themes)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In Japanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1