Monster review – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s hydra of modern morals and manners

Hidden meanings … Hinata Hiiragi and Soya Kurokawa in  Monster.
Hidden meanings … Hinata Hiiragi and Soya Kurokawa in Monster. Photograph: suenaga makoto

Monster review – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s hydra of modern morals and manners

Japanese director Kore-eda offers a deliberately dense but ultimately hopeful examination of how to negotiate family dysfunction with intelligence and humanity

Hirokazu Kore-eda challenges us with intricacy and complexity in this family drama about bullying, homophobia, family dysfunction, uncritical respect for flawed authority, and social media rumour-mongering; all working together to create a monster of wrongness. Kore-eda is collaborating with screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto and the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose score creates a layer of nuance and meaning. Its plangent, sad piano chords will often counterintuitively be added to a scene of apparent drama or tension, implying that the meaning of this scene has not yet been disclosed. Monster is a movie that does not render up its meanings easily in general, and its repeated motif is to replay the same events from a different viewpoint; in another type of film this might deliver the smooth and gratifying narrative click of a twist-reveal falling into place, but here it has a way of raising more questions than answers.

The action begins with a building burning to the ground, a dramatic blaze against the night sky, and this spectacular event makes a convenient starting point when the action is replayed. The building is the site of a sleazy hostess-bar, and a scandalous rumour runs around that local schoolteacher Mr Hori (Eita Nagayami) was one of the customers. Single mum Saori (Sakura Ando) has heard this tale and is thus perhaps already disposed to think ill of the man; her son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) then comes home from school saying that Mr Hori has humiliated him with a bizarre “pig brain” insult (or has Minato appropriated that insult from elsewhere?) and the teacher also appears to have hit him.

Furious Saori storms into the office of the principal (Yûko Tanaka) – a woman already almost catatonic with grief for a dead grandson – demanding an explanation, and the school attempts to fob her off with a bizarrely formal, legalistic apology, complete with bowing from Hori and three colleagues. This is an event so utterly insincere and irrelevant to her request for a clear explanation that Saori only becomes more livid. But then mumbling Mr Hori snaps, and tells her that Minato was bullying another child: sensitive, imaginative Eri (Hinata Hiiragi).

This claim is apparently substantiated and then un-substantiated with flashbacks and point-of-view shifts showing various classroom events from different angles, and we see more of the boys’ relationship, incubated by their shared secret place: a (possibly rather romantically imagined) abandoned railway carriage in the nearby urban wilderness. The children appear to have a hidden capacity for spite, violence and self-harm, which creates a miasma of fear in the lives of the adults, while the schoolteachers are trying to cover up a situation that could damage their professional reputations. The parent involved is trying to do the opposite: to uncover and get at some extraordinary and scary truth.

Monster isn’t about what it initially appears to be; the narrative peels away the diversionary misapprehensions until it arrives at its emotional kernel of truth, and the film offers us hope, not despair. The performances from Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayami and the boys have a calm frankness and integrity. As for the story itself, it is arguably a little contrived with a thicket of mystery that perhaps didn’t need to be so dense. But this is a film created with a great moral intelligence and humanity.

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