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At first, the Japanese juvie drama “Monster” seems to be a tragedy about a troubled, maybe dangerous, pre-teen. Little things about Minato Mugino (Soya Kurokawa) stand out to his single mom, Saori (Sakura Ando), like a new haircut and a cut over Minato’s right ear. Some of these might be read as signs of a problem, like when Minato asks his mom if she thinks a person would still be human if they received a pig brain transplant. Minato also sings to himself a phrase that hangs over the rest of the movie like a slow-breaking raincloud: “Who’s the monster?”
Saori is convinced that something’s up with Minato, so she keeps after her son until he admits that he was physically attacked by his homeroom teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). Saori’s heard and seen enough to pursue Hori, and her reading of events is apparently confirmed by the insincere apologies she gets from him and the school’s reserved principal, Makiko Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka).
At this point, the plot of “Monster,” which was scripted by the celebrated TV writer Yuji Sakamoto, shifts focus to Hori’s perspective. As you might expect, Minato hasn’t told his mother the whole truth. Some school bullies are also involved, and so is Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), as well as Yori’s withdrawn father (Shido Nakamura). There’s also obviously more to the principal’s seeming indifference and Hori’s defensive skittishness, though not enough to paint a tidy picture of either character. However, we learn more about what’s really going on with Minato and Yori, two close friends who live in their own semi-private fantasy world.
Based on this short synopsis, you might imagine that “Monster” is a sort of middle school “Mystic River” that inevitably casts a very broad sort of blame on yet another small community of blinkered loners. Thankfully, while “Monster” depends on dramatic irony and revelatory twists, it’s also a showcase for director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose knack for collaboration brings out the best in his actors, especially his younger cast members. To better serve this story, Kore-eda (“Broker,” “Nobody Knows”) focuses on impressionistic, revealing details about Minato and his mom, as well as Fushimi and Hori.
Still, “Monster” isn’t really about who really did what or why. A lot is explained, and a few are implicated, but not everything and not everyone. Saori doesn’t become pigeonholed as a villain after we learn that she was wrong to attack both Hori and Fushimi without knowing the whole truth. And while Fushimi gives a kind speech at the end, her unyielding response to Saori’s desperate questions also doesn’t look much better in hindsight after we’ve gotten to know her better.
A nesting doll narrative like “Monster” seems to encourage viewers to cast their own judgment or maybe even share the impossible emotional burden of these characters. Who could have known, or really seen everything that happened, and why didn’t everybody respond better? However, what’s really striking about Kore-eda’s latest is his diligent attention to mood and a credible sort of subjective reality.
As usual with Kore-eda, a question like “Who’s the monster” is misleading since, as we see, there’s nothing more or less real about Minato, Yori, or their teacher once we learn know what they did and where they’re coming from. Instead, “Monster” ties a group of outsiders together not by their mutual experiences but by their search for meaning in how they look at and care for each other. It’s incredible to see a complex character like Hori seemingly exposed as an uncaring creep in an establishing scene, like when he blows his nose or makes insinuating comments about Saori, and then summarily complicated rather than completely vindicated or dismissed in later scenes.
“Monster” is also a typical Kore-eda movie in that it’s ultimately about the elusive world of two young children who live in the immense shadow of their adult guardians. You can tell what kind of movie this is just by listening to the sunny, melancholic piano and synthesizer score, a mix of two new compositions and some older pieces by the recently deceased composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Sakamoto’s music swoons and pulses with a subtle and, in his words, “esoteric” complexity. His playing beautifully expresses Minato and his loved ones’ mutual loneliness without succumbing to treacly conventions or platitudes. It’s mood music, which can be easy to take for granted in a movie where the plot seems most important. (“Monster” won the Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival)
Still, Sakamoto’s music complements Kore-eda’s keen direction and general consideration for individuals who tend to struggle in private and only sometimes see themselves beyond who they’re with. It’s a shame they’ll never work on another movie together, but it's a real pleasure to see (and hear) their only collaboration.
Now playing in theaters.
Sakura Ando as Saori Mugino
Eita Nagayama as Michitoshi Hori
Soya Kurokawa as Minato Mugino
Hinata Hiiragi as Yori Hoshikawa
Yuko Tanaka as Makiko Fushimi
Mitsuki Takahata as Hirona Suzumura
Akihiro Kakuta as Shoda Fumiaki
Shido Nakamura as Kiyotaka Hoshikawa