4 Stars

The transition from childhood into the teenage years can be among the most turbulent years of a person’s life. Thoughts, actions, and relationships change, and kids often feel alone during this time. Even those with a child’s best interests at heart can feel like they’re fumbling forward trying to keep up. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film Monster explores this time in the lives of two young boys using a variety of perspectives. Monster is another in the line of the director’s masterwork explorations of human feeling.

The film opens with a building on fire. Watching from their balcony across the city are fifth grader Mugino Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and his mom Saori (Sakura Ando). Saori, a single mother, is struggling, but deeply loves her son. While they’re watching the fire, Minato starts asking strange questions about if a human brain can be replaced with a pig’s brain. When pressed about where these questions are coming from, Minato replies that his teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama) had been talking about it. As the days and weeks move forward, Minato becomes increasingly withdrawn, and comes home with injuries that he can’t explain to Saori’s satisfaction. Following an incident when Minato jumps out of their moving car, the boy seems to insinuate that Mr. Hori is the one hurting him. A furious Saori has multiple meetings with the school, where the principal (Yuko Tanaka), Mr. Hori, and other administrators and teachers stonewall her to a degree that plays as comic except for the very real hurt to Minato floating underneath the surface. Initially accepting an explanation that the principal is out of sorts because she recently lost her granddaughter in an accident, Saori keeps returning to the school, demanding explanations and apologies. She also goes to the home of another student, Hoshikawa Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), whom she has heard is connected with whatever is going on with Minato. Issues continue to escalate, and during a typhoon, Minato disappears.

Trailer: 'Monster' - Far East Films Courtesy Well Go USA

At this point, the film cuts back to the opening fire, only this time, the narrative is following Mr. Hori and his girlfriend Hirona (Mitsuki Takahata). As we see Mr. Hori’s life at home and the school, we don’t see a man who is violent with students. We see a young teacher who seems to care, and who has a small accident with Minato following an outburst the boy has in the classroom. During this part of the film, there is additional introduction to Hoshikawa Yori, who is also in Mr. Hori’s class. Yori is bullied relentlessly, but is almost preternaturally calm. When Mr. Hori goes to visit the boy’s father, the father seems convinced that Mr. Hori must be there because his “pig-brained” son is a troublemaker. As Saori continues to visit the school in this perspective, we see Mr. Hori as the sacrificial lamb of an administration trying to sweep things under the rug. Forced to give a public apology and being featured in the newspapers, his life is falling apart. He climbs to the roof of the school and looks to be about to end everything when the film cuts back in time again. This time, the perspective focuses on the pain involved with deception, whether deception of others or deception of self. It initially follows the principal before moving focus to Minato and Yori. As this part of the story progresses, we see the shy progression of a friendship between the boys. It’s quickly clear that they have feelings that go deeper than friendship. Yori accepts this, but Minato is struggling. What remains of the film explores their story and the effect it has on each other and the adults in their lives.

Monster is a masterful film on all levels. Kore-eda directs with his usual sure hand, getting the best from his collaborators. Of particular interest is how the mood and visuals of the film change in the last act. When the film focuses on the boys, while the subject matter can be harsh and grim, the moments where Minato and Yori are connecting are full of vibrant colors and with a greater focus on nature. For only the second time in his career, Kore-eda did not write the film, instead working with writer Yuji Sakamoto. Sakamoto’s use of the rotating perspectives works beautifully, allowing empathy and compassion to build for almost every character in the story over the course of the film. It also weaves together small moments from one perspective to the next, rewarding viewers who are paying attention throughout. Sakamoto’s win for Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is well-deserved. Cinematographer Ryuto Kondo, who worked with Kore-eda previously on Shoplifters, does excellent work here as well. There is also a very good score which perfectly fits the film. It’s the final score of composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant; Femme Fatale; Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), to whom the film is dedicated.

Hirokazu Kore-Eda's 'Monster' Unveiled, As Gaga, Toho Set June Release – Deadline Courtesy Well Go USA

The film also features several outstanding performances. Sakura Ando, so good in Shoplifters, is wonderful here. She brings real life to her portrayal of Saori, who is light and funny with her son early on, and has to go into full protective mother mode as the story progresses. Eita Nakayama and Yuko Tanaka, played as seemingly uncaring foils in the early going, get great moments to shine in the later sections of the film. Tanaka’s Principal Fushimi has a particularly powerful scene in the late going with Minato about the nature of happiness. The final section of the film really belongs to Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi. Kore-eda has a history of getting fantastic performances from young actors (Nobody Knows, I Wish, Shoplifters), and Monster continues that tradition. There are moments from their scenes together (particularly one during a game in an abandoned train car and one in the bathroom of Yori’s home) that will stick with me forever.

Hirokazu Kore-eda tells intensely human stories, and his way of telling them has made him my favorite filmmaker working today. If Monster is playing anywhere near you, you should seek it out. For me, it’s the best film of 2023 to date.

Monster opens in limited theaters on Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023.