Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, scored by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, is a dense, shape-shifting drama that grows more scattered as it progresses.
With his narratively oblique yet emotionally legible new film Monster, one-time Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda adds another entry to his scrapbook of fractured families and reconstituted makeshift substitutes. A woman stoically grieves the child she accidentally killed while backing out of the driveway, a sin claimed by her husband for public appearances’ sake; a mother and son celebrate a departed dad’s birthday with a little cake and some one-sided conversations with his memory; a lonely kid finds the love his single father refuses to dole out in a blossoming friendship with a classmate.
The currents of isolation, yearning, and revelatory compassion wield the same quiet potential for devastation that’s become synonymous with the rest of Kore-eda’s oeuvre. But working from someone else’s script for the first time since his debut — courtesy of Japanese TV stalwart Yuji Sakamoto, a long-wanted collaborator for their shared pet themes — the articulation of these feelings has been deliberately garbled to uneven results.
The first form assumed by this shape-shifting drama holds together while foregrounding its structuring absences, odd inexplicabilities to be recontextualized by doubling back through these scenes later on. Schoolboy Minato (Soya Kurokawa) has been acting strange, though his mother Saori (Sakura Ando) can’t quite tell whether he’s tuck-and-rolling out of a moving car because youngsters do weird things, or if a pig’s brain really has been implanted in his skull as he claims. She learns that he got this notion from his teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama), who also seems to be responsible for the bloodied ear that little Minato comes home with one afternoon.
For about an hour, the most engaging section of a film that grows more scattered as it progresses, a battle of wills plays out between a teacher and the student that may or may not be trying to frame him for cancelable offenses. Saori’s one-woman war on the school she sees as harboring an abuser leads to some light satire on Japanese workplace culture’s politeness-to-a-fault, the finer points of which may be lost on my fellow gaijin as they were on me.
The second act pivots both to tenderness and disjointedness as Minato befriends new classmate Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), their bond solidifying as they make a clubhouse out of a rusted-out school bus hiding in an idyllic patch of woods. Kore-eda draws out the darkness surrounding this fragile friendship, tactfully pointing to the causes that compel them to forestall going back to their respective homes as long as possible. But he still leaves glaring question marks — chief among them the identity of the “monster” suggested by the title — just so they can be tied up in the final segment’s overly prescriptive reframing of perspective.
Everything clicks into place as the audience more clearly hears a mumbled line of dialogue the second time around, or sees through the the sheets of rain in an earlier typhoon mudslide. But the sentimental wallop of Kore-eda’s technique takes a back seat to this writerly game-playing, more preoccupied with the sliding pieces of story than the catharses they’re meant to trigger.
A raging inferno bookends the film, the culprit and their motivations two main subjects of interest for the screenplay’s overlapping structure. The eventual reveal of the who and the why provides a satisfying sense of resolution, though this reward feels a bit petty in comparison to this film’s ample freestanding pleasures: the tremulous discovery of love, the crystalline peace of afterschool hours spent at unsupervised play, and above all else, the transportive score from the late, incomparable Ryuichi Sakamoto, a masterwork within a minor work.
Published 18 May 2023