Over the course of its run time, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster returns three times to the image of a building on fire. That’s partly a narrative device: Divided into three sections, the film retells the same tale from different perspectives, so that each time Kore-eda cuts to the fire, we know that we’ve jumped back to the start of the story. But the burning building also becomes an emotional specter hovering over the movie. This story about childhood, love, and misunderstanding begins under the sign of disaster and keeps reminding us how vulnerable our world is. That it features the most delicate of piano scores from the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, who reportedly submitted two new pieces and several previously recorded ones because he was too ill to compose a full soundtrack, merely adds to the film’s heartbreaking fragility.
When we first see 11-year-old Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and his mother Saori (Sakura Ando), they’re watching the fire from the window of their apartment. Saori always seems to be calling for Minato, and he’s not always there. The boy has been acting odd of late, withdrawn and temperamental. One day, Saori comes home to find him cutting his mop of hair, citing school rules. Another time, he comes home with only one shoe. A mysterious bruise shows up on his arm. More ominously, he claims his brain was switched with a pig’s. When he runs away, Saori finds him in a tunnel near a mountain pass; on their way back home, he suddenly opens the passenger side door and throws himself onto the road. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare — the growing fear that your child might be losing their mind.
Saori tries to maintain her calm demeanor for the sake of her son. A widow and single mom, she seems to have more a friendly relationship than a maternal one with Minato. She also begins to suspect a young teacher at school, Hori (Eita Nagayama), of terrorizing her son. When she inquires further, the school authorities repeatedly give her an absurdly rehearsed statement: “We accept your opinion and seriousness. We will provide appropriate instruction in the future.” Their blank, zombie-like faces as they deliver this terrifyingly bureaucratic statement freaks her (and us) out. “I don’t see any life in any of your eyes. Am I talking to human beings?” Saori asks. At one point, Teacher Hori breaks and blurts out that her son is bullying another kid. Things escalate even further from there.
Kore-eda then doubles back to the beginning, and we now see things from Hori’s point of view. Saori’s assumptions (and, of course, our own) turn out not to be the full picture. By the time the film has returned to that building to present the story a third time — with even more context, this time from the perspective of Minato and Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), the gentle, odd boy Hori accused him of bullying — we have an entirely different understanding of what happened. As the perspectives converge, a tale of queasy tenderness begins to emerge, about the way friendship, love, shame, and rejection so often live on the same continuum. It all leads to a profoundly haunting final shot, whose ultimate interpretation is left up to us.
Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon tends to be the common reference point for stories like this, though Monster’s perspectives are never wrong or dishonest, just incomplete. We’re not really seeing different stories, but rather the same story assembled via differing pieces. Perhaps more importantly, we see how the compassion of individuals — of a mother for her son, of a teacher toward his most vulnerable students, of a boy toward his best friend, amid the stirrings of what might even be called love — can become cruel, destructive forces when perceived in fragments, sans context. Each character also seems to be dealing with debilitating loss: a parent, a child, a spouse, a relationship. Everything is colored by anxiety, by the terror of further loss and slipping into oblivion, as if the film is constantly hovering between this world and the next.
Kore-eda isn’t one for elaborate narrative gambits; he tends to be straightforward, though understated, in his storytelling. The fragmented, nonlinear structure of Monster (from a screenplay by Yuji Sakamoto) is not just a fancy spin on a familiar tale, however. By cutting things up and showing us the perils of fractured perspectives, the director, one of cinema’s great humanists, demonstrates that compassion is more than just a natural state of being; it’s a process that requires constant expansion of one’s field of vision. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better film about the indisputable (and increasingly relevant) fact that we never really know what someone else is going through.
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