A drama about a boy’s troubles is presented from three different points of view, and we see how judgment from appearances prevents our understanding.
For some time it’s been evident that Hirokazu Kore-eda has become one of the finest film directors, not only in Japan, but in the entire world. He may not get as much attention as others because he specializes in what we usually call domestic drama rather than any of the popular genres such as action, horror, or suspense. His movies are usually about families, relationships, and especially children. That isn’t to say that he avoids topics of social relevance. Shoplifters, for instance, in 2018, was a very sharp examination of an underclass that we commonly associate with poverty and crime. His new film is called Monster, a drama once again centering on kids, but this time almost qualifying as a mystery.
Monster has an intriguing three-part structure. We meet a single mother, played by the very engaging and expressive Ando Sakura, working hard to support herself and her only child, a pre-teen boy named Minato. One day Minato asks his mother whether someone would still be human if he’d been transplanted with the brain of a pig. She scoffs, and wonders where he could have gotten such an idea. Then he mysteriously tries to cut his own hair, and later his mom notices a scar near one of his ears. She insists on him telling her what’s wrong and eventually he reveals that he was smacked in the head by one of his teachers, a Mr. Hori. The mother goes to the school and demands answers from the principal, and that’s when things start to get really weird.
The principal, an older woman, seems completely emotionless and checked out. All she says is that the school apologizes for a mistake in its instruction. Other school officials seem just as rigid. They bring in Mr. Hori himself, who merely bows his head and apologizes. The mother naturally wants more: what actually happened and why? But the school officials won’t say more, they stay tight-lipped, and in a later meeting after the boy has been injured falling down some stairs at school, Mr. Hori blurts out that Minato has been bullying another boy. She refuses to believe it. Meanwhile, a phrase uttered by her son echoes throughout the story. “Who is the monster?” he asks.
The movie then goes back to the beginning, this time from the point of view of the teacher, Mr. Hori. From here we learn that he has been unfairly blamed by the administrators for actions that were not malicious, yet the true chain of events is still obscure. Finally, in the third part of the film, we see all the story from the point of view of the son, Minato. Now we finally discover the truth, which is completely different than anything we might have expected.
So, in form, Monster is like a mystery, but it turns out the point isn’t really what actually happened, although we do find that out. Even the question, “Who is the monster?” is significant metaphorically but not literally. The film’s real meaning has to do with the inner world of children, and how those outside of that world are prone to misjudge and misunderstand it, looking to blame or to attack when what is needed is to understand. Once the truth dawns on us, the third part of the film becomes an amazing spiritual journey that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Monster lays bare the heart that so often we don’t notice because we were too busy.