What makes someone a monster? Is it their actions, something intrinsic inside them, or because they break away from social convention? Maybe it’s just because of the false impressions that others take away with them from unfortunate chance encounters? Monster, the latest film from celebrated director Hirokazu Kore’eda (Nobody Knows [2004], Still Walking [2008]) takes these themes and stitches them into a moving, aching, multi-faceted exploration of the dangerous power of broken perceptions, the searing pain of alienation, and the simple and brittle beauty of friendship and family in the midst of tragedy. Monster affected me emotionally more than any other film in 2023 so far, and it is well worth your time if you are willing for those willing to take the emotional ride.

The story, from screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto, begins with the freak incineration of a local girly bar in Japan (which becomes a framing device), then initially follows single mother Saori (Sakura Ando, Shoplifters [2018]) and her rising bewilderment as her elementary-age son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) begins exhibiting increasingly strange behavior. In the following muddle of conflicting stories and dueling lies, we find a suspicious teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama); a playful-yet-unpopular child (Hinata Hiiragi) who may be Minato’s friend or enemy; and a school board that seems bound to obfuscate just what is happening on the school premises. The story unfolds three times, first from the mother’s perspective, then the scandalized teacher, and finally from Minato wherein we finally find out the reality behind the knotted events… Or do we?

With this movie, it’s best to go in knowing a minimum, but operating under a gauzy veil of vague detail, viewers should be prepared for a story that is gripping and emotionally wrought. As Minato’s troubled behavior escalates and rumors grow out of control, I found myself incensed at Saori’s situation and the bullish behavior of the teaching staff at her son’s school. Over and over the story plants malicious rumors and stereotypical expectations, whether against individual characters (Hori is rumored to be going to girly bars, malicious gossip lurks around the seemingly cruel principal), or from societal expectations for gender roles or negative stereotypes about single mothers. While the editing very deliberately obfuscates the true situation for a long time with carefully trimmed and dramatically intense sequences built to evoke mystery and create false narratives in the minds of the audience, the eventual outworking of the story is cathartic and heartrending.

Movie Review: Monster

All around, the performances are fantastic, with incredible naturalistic work coming from Sakura Ando as mother Saori depicting her bewildered fight for her child. I loved relative newcomer Soya Kurokawa as Minato, who feels searingly vulnerable. More experienced child actor Hinata Hiiragi as the outcast classmate felt more artificial to me, but he has some painfully powerful moments. Eita Nagayama as teacher Hori is capable and desperate in turn with his own gnarled tale, all colored by confident and meaningful cinematography and beautiful framing.

Music by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant [2015], Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence [1983]) takes cues from his earlier work combines them with two original compositions, but you wouldn’t know that some of the truly haunting themes were not composed for this movie. The soft, contemplative, and creepy instrumental pieces float through and color the film like a musical manifestation of the sorrows and social pressures at play.

As with many kids, I had some horrific deeply traumatic experiences in my own childhood around the age of our protagonists here, and though my problems are far removed from Minato’s, I still found myself deeply invested in the story of Monster as I tried to figure out who if anyone was most to blame. I even discovered an article in Japanese that elucidated in careful prose who the “monster” might be from the perspective of each of the main characters. I loved this film enough to watch it twice in theaters (the second time some random girl sitting next to me took a picture of the screen near the end with a throwaway camera!), and both times I was equally enthralled. Sensitive, artistically constructed, and beautifully shot, Monster is a fine film constructed to stoke the audience members to think AND feel, and it does it well. Highly recommended.

5 Stars