PG, 126 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

An artless simplicity belies the complexity of this new film from Japan, a drama that takes place in the bright classrooms and sunny outdoors of a regional city. As it asks who is responsible for what, it delves into the attitudes of teachers, parents and students at an elementary school where two boys are behaving strangely. The question is who’s the monster, if indeed there is one.

To explore the proposition, not an unusual concern of parents when children transition in their development, we begin with one of several perspectives. The mother of one of the boys, Saori (Sakura Ando, from Shoplifters), visits her son’s school concerned that he has been chopping off his hair, been uncommunicative at home and apparently violently disruptive in class. So, what is going on here?

The parent-teacher session is passing strange, with the school principal, Makiko (Yuko Tanaka), the weirdest of all present. Her slow, deliberate speech and fixed expression may suggest lack of empathy or emotional lockdown since a recent family tragedy. In other scenes she is glimpsed scrubbing dirty school floors after hours, revealing an unhealthy obsession with appearances. Young Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama) on her staff is suspected of bullying his students, a charge that appears to be out of character, despite the gauche and inappropriate actions that seem to incriminate him.

A parent-teacher meeting that descends into farce

There is something absurdist as single mum Saori tries in vain to discuss her son’s disturbing behaviour with his teachers. Mr Hori pops a piece of candy into his mouth, dismisses her then apologises like an automaton, while the principal maintains her robotic mask. The meeting soon descends into farce.

From the start, the performances from both Sakura Ando and Eita Nagayama are terrific. The character of Hori particularly memorable, with his ambiguously creepy charm.

We discover that it is actually the well-being of two young boys that is at stake. Saori’s son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), has become close to fellow student Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), a vulnerable boy who lives with an abusive, drunken father. The two boys sometimes spend time alone together in an abandoned train carriage at a disused railway.

Their story is bookmarked with moments of cataclysm, a burning building and flooding rain and a mudslide start and finish the action, but there is a light touch overall.

The Monster narrative about two misunderstood fifth graders, based on an award-winning screenplay by Yuji Sakamoto, is directed by filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu. Both are creatives celebrated in their fields.

Kore-eda’s light directorial touch is characteristic of many of his films. Shoplifters for which he shot to prominence with a Palme d’Or. His French and English language drama, The Truth, made around the same time with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, also reflected knotty family issues, but was delivered with a characteristic deft touch. Even Broker, made in Korea, about the theft of abandoned babies that are onsold for adoption, is a tough story told with restraint.

For most of his filmmaking career since the late 1990s, Kore-eda has been writer and director, as well as editor of his feature films. His creative process has produced some remarkable results.

Unwieldy elements collide in what could have been a compelling experience

Monster is certainly ambitious. It offers different perspective on a range of things that could be marshalled in support of any one of the perspectives it entertains. A building has burnt down, and arson is suspected. A wand lighter was dropped on the pavement but it doesn’t necessarily point to anyone in particular. Nor does the discovery of a dead cat nor nasty schoolyard taunts explain who is to blame. As always, perspective depends on how you see things and what you know.

The occasional piano on the soundtrack was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, to whom Monster is dedicated. The celebrated, multiple award-winning composer died last year, after contributing two original tracks for the film and supplementing others, including pieces from his last album.

Monster represents a major collaboration of some great names in Japanese culture. With so much talent brought together for this creative effort, it could have been a compelling experience. Many are impressed, but as perspectives change there are discontinuities that collide awkwardly and the effect is jarring. While this story of two unhappy boys who bond is sometimes moving and the approach using different perspectives makes a strong point, this Monster is an unwieldy creation.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 May 2024.  Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes