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In the lush hills and dales outside of town, an abandoned bus’s undeniable attractions are the stuff of boyish dreams. Set piece to innocent games and target practice, young Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and Yori’s (Hinata Hiiragi) home away from home extends Monster’s narrative of suburban realism into the surreal. Like a liminal space, neither the elementary school classroom of bullies nor the claustrophobic confines of home, the boys’ clubhouse is an island within director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s masterpiece — a realm of the imaginary where they are finally free to be themselves.
Suburban realism rapidly transforms into thrilling suburban delusion as each character — mother, son, friend, and teacher — lives out their own side of the story in fragmentary sequence, confused and confounded at every turn by the maddening actions of the others. Beginning with a building fire across town, a scene that marks the passage of time throughout the narrative and sets the scene for the blame game, Monster is rife with the elemental force of dramatic tension and small destruction, as the viewer puzzles out the mystery of Minato’s purported mistreatment at the hands of his teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama).
From Hori’s fondness for pretty hostesses to his stiff demeanor, we are given glimpses into the psyche of a young man tasked with authority and responsibility and found at fault by Minato’s single mother, Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando), when Minato begins to behave erratically after coming home from school. As Saori’s protectiveness causes her to confront the coldly indifferent elementary school principal, Makiko Fushimi (Yuko Tanada), and a disaffected Hori about injuries Minato received at school and his quietly disturbing actions, the audience is thrust into her experience of the injustice she perceives.
Sakura Ando as Saori gives a spirited performance as the diligent, responsive, and nurturing independent mother, but these qualities truly shine when she is paired alongside Hori in an increasingly desperate search party, the “monster” of the film’s title becoming an amorphous, hovering threat that is as internal as it is realized. When flaws are what make us visible to each other as human, how do we set out to identify the monster that is within all of us? Can it be so isolated to one perpetrator, when the scaffolding of a story is one built upon layers of mediated and incomplete perception?
Yet Monster’s primary appeal lies in its adept study of human psychology, as each character’s behaviors are explained in slow, focused reveals, unveiling aspects to abrupt and mystifying acts, from Minato throwing himself out of a moving vehicle to Fushimi’s nearly clinical detachment and diverted focus when confronted with the ongoing schoolhouse drama to Hori’s building need for comfort and remedy as all eyes land on him for both explanation and justification of his misdeeds. With each character glimpsing shards of each other’s underlying motives as the plot thickens, the initially narrow view of their tipping points is enlarged to a panoramic vista.
With a delicate interplay of cause and effect, the intricate narrative progresses not unlike a Rube-Goldberg machine, each plot point hinging on the last, making for a kaleidoscopic rendering of various fragmented puzzle pieces that finally begin to make sense as the characters reveal themselves to each other in bits and pieces. The suspense that Kore-eda evokes through a fine balance of individual character studies and glancing interactions communicates a conviction that the way the story is told is what ultimately imbues it with significance, imparting meaning to a situation through the choice of framing.
By using the implicit to allow the filmgoer to play detective and piece together the mystery on their own, defanging seemingly threatening details like the boys’ devotion to a dead cat or what secret pain lurks behind Yori’s dreamy exterior, Kore-eda establishes his stature as a visionary filmmaker, with a tight control he wields to gently guide his captive audience along as their innocence is again and again made and remade in each other’s forgiveness and grace. Complemented by a light synthesizer soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the welding of the great artists’ talents offers a filmic production that is revelatory in its final reveal, a meditation on one of literature’s grandest themes that will leave viewers mesmerized.
Monster screens through Thursday, January 11th.
Tuesday, Jan 9th – 5pm
Wednesday, Jan 10th – 2:30pm, 5pm
Thursday, Jan 11th – 2:30pm, 5pm