‘Monster’ KVIFF Echoes 2023 review: Hirokazu Koreeda slowly peels back the layers

A concerned mother accuses her son’s teacher of abuse, but not everything is as it seems in Monster (Kaibutsu), which played this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after premiering in competition at Cannes. Director Hirokazu Koreeda masterfully reframes his story Rashomon-style here, but wraps things up too neatly in Monster‘s final act.

Monster stars Sakura Ando as Saori, single mother to a young Minato (Soya Kurokawa) whose rugby-playing father passed away some time ago. Saori begins to notice that her son isn’t acting like himself, which culminates in an arresting sequence during which he throws himself out of a moving car.

When mom presses Minato for answers, he reveals that he’s been abused, both physically and verbally, by a teacher who tells him he has a “pig-brain.” And while the case seems clear-cut, Saori can’t get a direct answer from the school’s principal Fushimi (Yûko Tanaka) when she brings her the allegations of misconduct.

Fushimi has just lost her grandson, but seems to act with indifference to what should be serious claims. “I don’t see any life in your eyes,” Saori tells her. “Are you human?” The accused teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), meanwhile, will only offer a company-mandated apology.

But is everything so clear? Monster abruptly rewinds itself to show us the same events told from the point of view of Mr. Hori during it’s second act. Here, the teacher isn’t seen any kind of monster, but a benevolent presence who tries to help Minato. But can we trust his perspective? Or is it only part of a larger picture?

Monster‘s final third tells the story from Minato’s perspective, and while it’s a touching story the movie becomes less interesting the more it explains itself: this wasn’t, in fact, a challenging Rashomon-style narrative but a more pedestrian case of misunderstanding that is explicitly revealed to both the characters and the audience. A final scene, however, is hauntingly ambiguous.

There’s a fine line between subtly presenting the story from different perspectives to reveal different interpretations of events, and purposely obscuring information from the characters in the film to form a contrived Three’s Company-like misconception. Despite what is largely a first-rate presentation, Monster comes close to crossing this line once everything is clarified.

Still, this is an entirely compelling, always-interesting drama from one of Japan’s finest directors, returning to his home country after making The Truth in France and Broker in South Korea. Monster doesn’t quite rank alongside Koreeda’s best films, which include ShopliftersNobody Knows, and the underrated The Third Murder, but the steady hands of a master filmmaker are always apparent.

Monster is dedicated to Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The RevenantThe Last EmperorMerry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), who lends the film a haunting soundtrack that, at times, recalls Harry Manfredini’s work on Kubrick’s The Shining. Sakamoto passed away earlier this year, leaving Monster with his final feature film score.

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