Few stories are as gratifying as the narrative jigsaw. How to fool the viewer into believing one thing without lying about what happened? It’s difficult enough to execute on the page, but much more can be hidden in writing. With film it’s a matter of obscuring the context of what we both see and hear, which requires some trickery. Like any sound cinematic tool, it can be misused and abused (see: the MCU), but with tasteful restraint it can be the backbone of a masterclass in mystery. See: Monster.

Writer, editor, and director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 17th feature––his fourth in five years, the third of those to debut in competition at Cannes, with Shoplifters taking the Palme d’Or in 2018––is exactly that: a masterclass in mystery. Or, perhaps, context. What starts as a relatively clear story about sinister pyros, “pig-brained” kids, and abusive teachers transforms, through labyrinthine story mechanics, into a maze of limited perspectives crafted by loss, misinterpretation, and rejection.

The premise is simple at first: Minato (Soya Kurokawa), a fifth-grader, and his mother Saori (“Shoplifters” star, Sakura Ando) live a modest life in the wake of his father’s tragic death. Minato seems troubled when he comes home from school, but how and why is another story that can’t be gleaned through Saori’s sight. 

It’s difficult to discern whether the quiet, disheveled Minato is the victim, the bully, or someone caught between them. At worst it suggests a We Need to Talk About Kevin situation. At best, a parent-teacher conference. Until he comes home with a bloody ear, battered nose, and an admission: it was his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). Irate, Saori embarks upon a grating journey upstream against the school’s top brass to get the teacher outed and fired, only to be t-boned by the rigid legalese of the sage-like principal (a terrific Yûko Tanaka) and her administrative goons.

40 minutes in, a storm hits and Monster starts over. 

We’re back in the opening scene: a hostess bar up in flames in the night, fire trucks screeching by, and Minato’s bullied but happy-go-lucky classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi) skipping away from the accident in a sing-songy mood. 

The perspective of the teacher plays out over another 40 minutes, the storm hits again, and Monster begins for a third time, asserting its Rashomon-like structure with the promise of genuinely untraceable surprise. But where Rashomon or (more recently) The Last Duel uses this structure to tell three different versions of the same story, warping characters into different iterations of themselves each time, Monster only tells one version of one story, veiling and unveiling crucial details through new angles on events in focus, each additional perspective landing at seminal moments from the other perspectives that completely recontextualize what we’re seeing. 

Example: we hear the score enter during one scene, but it’s a sudden departure from the warm, glowing piano piece left by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto that’s been playing up to that point. But if scores are always changing, there’s not much to consider. It isn’t until much later that one realizes the music wasn’t the score but an intentionally veiled act happening just offscreen that holds immense weight over what the character we saw earlier was experiencing, unbeknownst to them. 

Characters yo-yo from angel to scum of the earth to victim in intricate, often-breathtaking narrative beats––the kind that fill the gaps so perfectly they come with the same rush of dopamine that hits when you slot in the missing piece of a puzzle. It’s a roller coaster of vehemence on all sides, a web of story and person that twists the viewer into an emotional knot. Everyone’s a suspect of something, whether time reveals them innocent or not. 

In which sense Kore-eda has a message––spoken cleanly, but more importantly felt through the evidence of the story: “What actually happened doesn’t matter.” In Monster, what matters is what people know. Or what they think they know. The toughest part is that everyone’s typically in the right. What they think is going on beckons an extreme reaction, and what the other person knows (or doesn’t) situates them to have to accept it. Almost everyone’s motivations are justified, their understandings askew, their pictures incomplete, their sense of justice resolute. Can you blame a mother whose child was abused by a teacher for haranguing the staff? Or the staff for trying to get a straight story from its otherwise beloved teacher? Or the fifth-grader for acting out after his dad just died?

A career editor and screenwriter, Kore-eda cuts all of his films and pens almost all of his own scripts, but Monster marks the first screenplay he’s directed of someone else’s since 1995’s Maborosi, and one can easily see why. Yûji Sakamoto’s visual, aural, and literary trickery is riveting, with all the subtlety and tact required for a story like this to work. Kore-eda also teamed back up with Shoplifters DP Ryûto Kondô, whose eye for immaculate shot composition in rhythm with Kore-eda’s direction was notably missing in the director’s last two, The Truth and Broker. It shines here, adding thematic richness and texture that complements the largely natural world its characters inhabit in rural Japan. 

Monster premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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