Worried about her son’s strange behaviour, single mother Saori (Sakura Ando) confronts his school, believing that he is a victim of bullying by his class teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama). Unimpressed by Hori’s rote apology, she continues pressuring the school. The reason for Hori’s reluctance to offer a full mea culpa is that he doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong, instead insisting that the problem lies with Minato himself (Soya Kurokawa), who he argues is in fact the perpetrator of bullying against another classmate Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiragi). It may be that both Minato’s mother and Hori are incorrect as we see that Minato and Hoshikawa’s relationship is more complicated than they imagine.
Written by Yuji Sakamoto and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, “Monster” follows in the ‘Rashomon’ tradition of having the same story told from three perspectives, with each retelling uncovering more of the truth. Each time we see the story we are able to sympathise with the protagonist, whether Sakura Ando’s frustrated mother, desperate for answers and an apology; Eita Nagayama’s well-meaning but unlucky Hori, a victim of malicious rumours and misunderstandings; Soya Kurokawa’s Minato and Hinata Hiragi’s Hoshikawa, schoolboys attempting to navigate their feelings for one another. The emotional connection engendered by these characters is aided by fantastic performances, particularly from the young stars who create a believable relationship between Minato and Hoshikawa. The film weaves these stories together skillfully, teasing out each revelation, with scenes shot from a different angles showing the new perspective being brought to the situation. There is a sense of a delicately balanced composition in the screenplay, with each story beginning with a fire at a hostess club and ending with a typhoon. It builds like a classical piece, with the same moments, characters and motifs running through, each time with a slight difference. The Ryuichi Sakamoto score (who sadly passed two months before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated) ffers simple yet effecting accompaniment to the narrative.
“Monster” is a film that tells three stories and changes tone with each narrative twist. The first section deals with bullying, and the difficulty of parents to understand and protect their children. All evidence seems to point to the conclusion that Minato is the victim, and Saori’s reaction is perfectly understandable in this situation. Her love for her son and need to protect him blinds her to any other possibility, and even the true cause of his unhappiness. Hori’s story further drives home this idea of objective versus subjective truth, with his comi-tragic downfall caused by people unwilling to listen to his side of the story. We see in the rumour spread about his visiting a hostess club how easy it is for lies to spread and the truth to be manipulated. In the final, and most powerful part, we see that it is Minato and Hoshikawa’s forbidden love for one another that has caused the anxiety of Minato’s mother and the woes of Hori. This part draws on the previous sections, in which people are either unaware of the truth or prohibited from telling it. Minato himself has trouble confronting the truth of his own feelings of Hoshikawa. In the end the film is a plea for people to be able to live openly, to love freely and without the need to hide. The web of lies and deception that spins from a society’s inability to be honest can have devastating consequences. In its final, joyful moment, we see the storm caused by this emotional dishonesty break and the light of truth and acceptance shine through. In his first Japanese film since 2018’s “Shoplifters”, director Koreeda delivers a beautiful rumination on love and truth.