After exhibiting increasingly strange behavior, Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando, "Shoplifters") finds her son Minato (newcomer Soya Kurokawa) in a cave and when she tries to bring him home, he jumps out of the moving vehicle.  Minato will tell his mother that his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama, "Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai"), told him he had a pig’s brain and declares himself a “Monster.”

Laura's Review: A-

For the first time director/editor Hirokazu Kore-eda ("Nobody Knows," "Shoplifters") works from a screenplay he did not write and yet Sakamoto Yûji appears to reference several of Kore-eda’s films within a “Rashomon”-like story that shifts our perspective with its three points of view over three acts.  The film, which begins with a much rumored fire at a downtown hostess bar, ends with a typhoon just like Kore-eda’s “After the Rain,” features two young boys who want to stay together often seen against a passing train as in “I Wish” and children who’ve lost a parent as in numerous others.

The day after the fire, Saori, who works in a laundry, hears from a scandalized customer that Mr. Hori was at the hostess bar the night before.  She’ll arrive home to find one of Minato’s sneakers missing, the boy in the shower, clumps of his hair on the hallway floor.  When she empties out his water bottle, clumps of dirt fall out – this from a boy who has recently begun asking if dirt was shoveled onto his dad (no, his mom tells him – dad was cremated).  After he names Hori, Saori meets with his school principal Makiko Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka, "Princess Mononoke"), Hori and several other teachers, but she is indignant when Hori apologizes for the ‘misunderstanding’ and all bow before her.  During her next attempt to meet with school administration, the principal isn’t even there, called away to deal with a matter over her grandchild’s death.  Saori is sympathetic but gets nothing but polite evasion and Hori’s accusation that her son is a bully. 

The next act will shift to Hori’s point of view, one which finds him joking with a girlfriend as they observe the hostesses evacuating from the fire.  What we will see from his point of view is a new teacher with a lot of compassion for his students, including Minato’s violent acting out in the classroom and the small Yori Hoshikawa (newcomer Hiiragi Hinata) Minato appears to be tormenting.  A visit to the Hoshikawa household complicates the issue and the school administration’s handling of single mother Saori drives him to despair.  The last act gives us Minato’s perspective in which multiple events take on new meaning and where he finds surprising common ground with Fushimi.

Other than its complex structure, the film is very much in Kore-eda’s oeuvre, especially its child-focused last act.  The film’s ending could be open to interpretation, something unusual for this filmmaker, but his deep humanism permeates the film.  Kore-eda has elicited strong performances for his two first timers, Kurokawa brooding and internal, Hinata cheerful and naïve.  As she did in “Shoplifters,” Ando brings strong material vibes, this time riddled with anxiety.  Nagayama effectively portrays Hori in several different lights while Tanaka peels away Fushimi’s initial elusiveness to reveal a deep melancholy.

In another first for Kore-eda, Ryuichi Sakamoto ("Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence") provides the music, ironically the last score from the late composer, a mix of two original and repurposed piano pieces which suit the film perfectly.

Robin's Review: B+

A single mom notices her son is acting strangely. She thinks his odd, sullen behavior is due to the bullying of his homeroom teacher, but the teacher accuses the boy of bullying another 5th grader. The truth will come out, but not in expected ways in “Monster.”

There is a Roshomon sensibility to Hirokazu Koreeda’s point of view film about perceptions. When Minato’s mom, Saori, notices his change in behavior, her immediate response is to look to her son’s teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). for answers. She demands a meeting with the school principal and the educator to get to the bottom of the abuse.

Instead of answers, the mom is assured it will never happem again but she wants more than empty assurances. She wants an apology from Mr. Hori but also wants an explanation from the man. “I’m sorry” is as far as it gets. It soon become apparent that the principal is less interested in getting answers than in sweeping the whole thing under the rug.

As Saori digs into what really happened, the story gets complicated as the details of the abuse and the perception it triggers come out. It is a stylish story that keeps you guessing, and not always the right way, There is a lot to unwrap in this little mystery as we are fed the clues of what happened in pieces.
As the story unfolds, we are presented with the worried mom and her concerns for her son. We are with her when she faces the principal and her staff and they try to diminish the mother’s need to protect her son. Then Mr. Hori, first, denies any wrongdoing, then reverses course under pressure from the principal. Saori does not believe the sincerity of the apology.

There is finger pointing going on with both sides. Unfortunately, the perception leads to misconception as the boys, thought enemies, are really friends. This makes the adults in the room seem frivolous as they try to fix the wrong problem. The performances by all, including the non-actor two boys, are effective with each giving their piece to the puzzle of the story.

BTW, there is no “monster” except for the ones the viewer’s mind imagines.

Well Go USA releases "Monster" in select theaters on 11/22/23.  Click here for ticket information/play dates.