It seems 2023 is the year for telling stories that play with perspective and question the audience’s view of the truth. Following the recently released Anatomy of a Fall, arrives Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster which illustrates the subjectivity of reality and the repercussions of a lie.
The film follows Minato, played with excellent depth by child actor Soya Kurokawa, as he encounters some form of trouble whilst at school. Soon, his mother Saori (Sakura Ando) goes to investigate and finds the newly arrived teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) to be implicated in the son’s issues, all the while questions of bullying and abuse begin to arise. This description may sound vague, but it is deliberately so as Kore-eda slowly unveils the truth by retelling the short time span through the three different perspectives of mother, teacher, and son.
The first of these shows Saori desperately pleading with the school to take action on Minato’s suffering whilst facing a board of people who each time become more ridiculous and unhelpful in their bureaucracy and increasingly vacuous apologies. The repetition of the section seems to be going for Kafka-esque but fails to be either truly funny or dramatically satisfying. Perhaps this is the point as the film frustrates the audience as much as the mother becomes frustrated by the establishment but nevertheless, the slow crawl of the opening makes the film lose a lot of goodwill.
Similarly, the following section is told from the teacher’s perspective, although exposing the other side of this drama continues to obscure what is at the centre of this story. At times, the film has interesting ideas, such as the recurring idea of being a “human born with a pig’s brain” which will later act as a potent metaphor for other kinds of social exclusion whilst also referring to the so-called ‘monster’ of the title. Running slightly over two hours long, it often feels as if the film’s run time is padded out by details which ultimately lead nowhere. This seems to occur consistently throughout the first and second chapters which makes Monster feel imbalanced and ultimately also tests the audience’s patience.
Nevertheless, Monster reaches impressive heights in the third and final chapter told from the perspective of Minato. As the story has developed, another boy Yori (Hinata Hiiragi) has become deeply involved in the unclear nature of what is really going on at school. Earlier, Yori is called to testify to the school’s board and asked if Minato is bullying him after an accusation made by teacher Hori. Much like most of Kore-eda’s breadcrumbs, beneath this scene is a kernel of truth but also a distinct lack of depth in the initial framing. Fear not though as the so-called mystery of the ‘monster’ does come to a satisfying conclusion.
The final third beautifully infuses the story with fragments of magical realism to reflect the playfulness of a child and the joy found in freedom makes the rest of the film pale in comparison. So much so that it begs the question of why the film simply couldn’t have been this section alone. Whilst there is clearly a commentary around perception and truth, the most impactful part of the film lies in how Minato deals with his emerging identity and how Kore-eda illustrates the emotional intensity of early adolescence.
Suddenly, the film seems vibrant and alive as not only the emotional resonance is amplified but seemingly the cinematography becomes more dynamic and engaging too. It is of such a contrast in overall effect and quality to the first half that it becomes difficult to talk about the film as one true whole. Perhaps the somewhat slow and frustrating opening is necessary to build up such an endearing and powerful final act, but it begs the old-age question of if the ends justify the means.
Ultimately, Monster contains some fantastic sequences, but its final push can’t quite make up for the film’s genre-hopping lacklustre beginning. Despite the clear potency and importance of the third act, which I would recommend in isolation if I could, the film never quite meshes fully together – which is a shame considering all the clear talent in front of and behind the camera.
Monster will be released in cinemas on February 23, 2024.
Leeds Film Fest 2023 runs until November 19, 2023.