“Monster” Contains a Mini-Masterwork About the Lives of Children

One of the most graceful experiences I’ve had at the movies this year is the last part of “Monster,” the drama directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda that’s currently in theatres, but it takes a saintly patience to sit through the hour-plus of action that precedes it. “Monster” is coy and cagey, its story constructed in three parts whose narrative boundaries are sharply drawn. Each centers on a different character in the story, but this isn’t a movie of ambiguity; it’s one of ambiguity dispelled and prejudices thereby laid bare. Reader beware: no sensible discussion of the film can entirely avoid spoilers, given the dramatic twists that Kore-eda doses out as if they were time-release medication for the viewer’s moral failings. Yet these pivots hardly matter. What matters in “Monster” isn’t the gamesmanship built into its structure but the imaginative richness, the emotional immediacy, and the vital performances that are concentrated in its extended third section.

The first part follows a widow named Saori (Sakura Ando), whose son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), a fifth grader, complains of being insulted and even physically abused by his homeroom teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). The second part depicts the same events, this time centered on Hori’s view of them. The third, focussing on Minato himself, dispels the mysteries of the previous two sections, and in so doing reveals the narrow misjudgments of the adult characters, who hadn’t had the benefit of knowing the full story. It also overturns misunderstandings that viewers will have formed, led on by the earlier sections’ calculated red herrings.

The movie, written by Yûji Sakamoto, is set in a small provincial city. A high-rise building in the center of town is on fire and becomes a subject of gossip. A customer at a dry cleaner where Saori works mentions to her that one floor of it houses a hostess bar that Hori is said to frequent—inappropriate conduct for a teacher. Meanwhile, her son, Minato, is manifestly troubled and tells her that Hori pulled his ear, bloodied his nose, and called him a monster with a pig’s brain. When Saori goes to the school to complain, she’s met with deferentially polite stonewalling—evasions and deflections, vague apologies and brazen lies. The discussion gets heated, and Hori accuses Minato of bullying another boy in the class named Yori (Hinata Hiiragi).

In the second part, laying out Hori’s romantic life, his sense of persecution by Minato’s mother, and his humiliation over the accusations, Kore-eda tweaks the drama to signal more clearly endemic social ills: the stifling of free expression by an elaborate code of proprieties; the way that narrow administrative rules predicated on the value of self-restraint enforce a norm of silence; the exacerbating role of other traditional forms of patriarchal, macho oppression. The indictment is powerful but would be more so were it evoked more subtly with a wider range and a finer grain of action—or, alternatively, more candidly, with denunciatory vehemence. Instead, the film lands somewhere in between, with a feeling of one-to-one correspondence in the way that a given action or utterance pins a given idea to the screen, allowing no nonconforming excess of observation or of emotion.

The problem with information being dosed out like this goes beyond a viewer’s uneasy feeling of being toyed with by a filmmaker. The strategy actually impinges on the filmmaker, too, imposing a kind of tunnel vision, a dramatic teleology that narrows perspective and imagination. In the movie’s first section, Saori’s mounting sense of trouble with Minato offers a strong undercurrent of narrative energy, but Kore-eda is forced to let it go to waste. Lest too much be revealed too soon, he truncates scenes of mother-son discussions—and, similarly, of Saori’s confrontations with Hori and other school officials. These confrontations are intricately crafted in their verbal thrusts and parries, and the performances are meticulously calibrated; there’s a subtle fervor in the way Ando modulates Saori’s mounting rage, and Yûko Tanaka, as a school principal harboring a shame of her own, conveys tension lurking behind imperturbably rigid formality. Yet time after time, just as these scenes reach a critical moment of tension, they end. My most frequent note to myself from the viewing is bewilderment at being left hanging; after all, how the characters get out of dramatic impasses or potential catastrophes is as dramatically important as how they get into them. Instead, Kore-eda cuts and cuts to fit the Procrustean demands of his scheme.

The revelations of the third section, retroactively clarifying the story, turn out to be far more than mere plot points. This part of the film, centered on Minato’s friendship with Yori, is manifestly the one in which Kore-eda and the screenwriter Sakamoto are deeply invested, the one that they fill with heart and in which their imagination and curiosity range freely at last. It’s a friendship that Minato has trouble avowing, because Yori—slight and impish, with a high-pitched voice—is the target of bullying. Minato fears being associated with him, even as he takes exceptional and reckless steps to defend him. The two boys share in wondrous and gleeful games of fantasy. There are intensely dramatic moments reminiscent of some of the most agonizing scenes in “Moonlight,” including a sublime fillip of revolt against oppressive paternal authority. In another scene with Minato, Yori contemplates the end of the universe and the nature of time in childlike terms involving food, excrement, and their own birth; Kore-eda and Sakamoto display a calmly spectacular sensitivity to a bright child’s speculative temperament and strong memory, and Hiiragi produces one of the most exquisite moments of any recent performance by a child actor. By now, the writing is so fine-grained and so varied, the direction so attentive, and the performances so sympathetic, that the third section plays nearly like a film in itself, one that’s a far deeper and richer experience than the whole into which it fits. ♦

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