Director Kore-eda Hirokazu has made some great works of compassionate cinema. His previous film, Broker, was a sympathetic plea for found families, and this considerate eye seems to apply to most of his work. This makes Monster seem like a sudden shift in direction. It is billed as a psychological mystery, and for the most part, it does play like one. Yet Hirokazu, even within the thrilling elements of the genre, still finds compassion here by subverting the conventions of the mystery. The result is a clever, even moving tale of shifting perspectives and moralities, that still finds an all-too human heart within the suspense.
Saori Mugino (Sakura Andō) notices that her son, Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) has been acting strange and detached after school. After further investigation, she discovers that her son was involved in an incident connected to a teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), and another classmate, Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi). As the concerned mother pushes the matter further, she discovers more and more details that lead her to call for the resignation of Mr. Hori. Yet, through shifting point-of-views, it may be that there is more to the incident and the people involved than it originally seems.
The film functions first and foremost as a mystery, and the most obvious comparison one could make with Monster is Rashomon, an influential film from 1950 by director Akira Kurosawa about a murder in the forest told by different, disagreeing characters (in fact, a phenomenon dubbed The Rashomon Effect, which is used to describe conflicting eyewitness testimonies comes from that film). The two films share the central element of a key incident being revisited throughout the film but told through different points of view, all with distinct characteristics and opinions on what actually happened. This is already a rather difficult structure to work with — how do you imply to the audience that a flashback has occurred? How do you repeat an event that has already been shown and reveal new information without becoming repetitive? How do you imply the timeline of events so that audiences can pinpoint when and where something happens within a new point of view? Yet the film accomplishes the feat well, addressing the essential concerns needed in the structure leading to the overall narrative reading as discernible without becoming too confusing. Admittedly, audiences may find themselves piecing together the entire narrative with all the points-of-views post-viewing, but due to the excellent communication of information, this can be easily accomplished (and even rewarding due to the amount of small details—every gesture and word, no matter how small, having a greater role in the overall narrative).
Where Monster differs from Rashomon is the tone and intent of shifting perspectives. Whereas Rashomon is more concerned with muddling the moralities and motives of the people involved in the incident, implying humanity and truth can be easily tainted, Monster is concerned with the opposite. It is focused on making clear the moralities of the people involved, and even calling for compassion for all individuals. With the first point-of-view, the film establishes a solid perspective of the incident, even painting a clear hero and villain. Yet when the story rewinds and shifts perspective, there is an immediate questioning of who is right and wrong. Without giving too much away, as the film continues to reveal more, it paints all individuals involved as humans—with good intentions, but also giving way to unscrupulous rumours, mistakes, and misunderstandings for their own benefit. Monster begins with an implication of a right and wrong, then blurs this when more of the actual truth is revealed.
Monster does follow the mystery genre’s conventional slow and suspenseful reveal towards a truth, but its true ingenuity lies in reversing the emotional beats of the mystery. The film begins with something shocking, then progresses to something deeply humane. It is clever and enthralling, and the places the film goes with its characters and its compassion towards them can even be deeply emotional.
Beyond this, the film is also greatly crafted. The performances are all mesmerising, particularly Sakura Andō’s deep determination for her son, and the two child performers Kurokawa and Hiiragi able to convey contemplations and melancholy far beyond their years, while still able to capture pure childish joy. The cinematography is also able to shift from the dark suspenseful style of mystery to the bright colours of compassion. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the score is done by esteemed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (known for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) in his final work, and it is nothing short of delicate and lovely.
Monster crafts a mystery with a clever structure, providing a Rashomon-style morality tale for a current generation. Yet beyond this already playful and gripping structure, Hirokazu sticks to his signature style by breaking expectations regarding the genre. The result is masterful cinema that is not only worthy of deeper dissection, but worthy too of compassionate emotion like joy and maybe even some tears.