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‘Monster’ seeks to arrive at the whole truth

“Monster” (“Kaibutsu”) (2023). Cast: Sakura Ando, Soya Kurokawa, Eita Nagayama, Hinata Hiiragi, Yuho Tanaka, Shido Nakamura, Mitsuki Takahata, Akihiro Kakuta. Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu. Screenplay: Yûji Sakamoto. Web site. Trailer.

Is it possible to know the real truth behind a particular situation? It’s often been said that, as outside onlookers, we only see a fraction of what’s involved in the unfolding of a specific scenario. And, because of that, we might well piece together an incomplete view of things, based primarily on what we believe about them, given that they shape our perspective and, subsequently, the materialized existence that emerges. The outcome may present us with a somewhat accurate depiction of those manifested notions, but how on target is that picture? That’s the core question raised in the engaging new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”).

Revealing too much about the nature of this film would ultimately expose too much about it. Suffice it to say, however, the picture presents its narrative in several overlapping, interconnected segments, all of them related but each nevertheless distinct in its own right. Collectively, they explore the same scenario from a variety of perspectives, but each only presents a portion of the overall story, something that isn’t fully revealed until film’s end, when all of the pieces are at last drawn together. It’s a storytelling technique that was first, and perhaps best, presented in director Akira Kurosawa’s innovative screen classic, “Rashômon” (1950), and has been eloquently replicated here by a new generation Japanese filmmaker, Kore-eda Hirokazu.

The picture’s opening sequence focuses on the exasperating challenges that single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) faces with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), who has developed a reputation for acting out. She witnesses some of this behavior firsthand, but much of what allegedly happens comes her way as a result of after-the-fact evidence, much of it delivered by way of the unreliable word of others. In light of that, she must often ask herself, how much can she trust what she hears or finds? Minato is her son, after all, and she wants to protect him against unfounded or unfair accusations, some of which appear to lack credibility or adequate explanation. That’s particularly true when Minato’s teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), is accused of excessive discipline in response to one of the youngster’s outbursts against another student, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), an incident cryptically explained away by the school’s principal, Mrs. Fushimi (Yuho Tanaka), herself a figure of questionable character. Still, given Minato’s behavior, many are quick to paint him with broad brush strokes as a devious little monster. But is he?

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando, right) faces her share of behavioral challenges with her preteen son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa, left), in the multi-segmented new Japanese drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), the latest from director Kore-eda Hirokazu. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

In the second segment, the focus shifts to Mr. Hori, who, as viewers discover, is a new teacher at Minato’s school. He’s eager to be starting this new job and looks forward to making a favorable impression on the students, their parents and the administrators. He’s also starting a new relationship with Hirona (Mitsuki Takahata), with whom he’s quite taken. However, not long after beginning work at the school, he notices that Yori is apparently being picked on by bullies, something the teacher believes must be difficult for the small, sweet young boy to handle. He takes an interest in the student’s well-being, even going so far as to visit the youth’s family, where he finds him being raised by a drunken, seemingly intolerant father (Shido Nakamura). So, in light of these factors, Hiro quietly assumes the role of a de facto protector, and, when he witnesses the aftermath of an apparent incident involving Yori and Minato, he steps up and takes action. But is his response appropriate? And what do the school administrators like Mrs. Fushimi and Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta) think about it, particularly in light of the impression his actions might leave on skeptical parents, including both Saori and others? In the wake of these developments, Hori is quickly on his way to becoming a pariah, and his life begins falling apart, both personally and professionally. Indeed, is he the monster here?

In the final sequence, the narrative shifts to the relationship between Yori and Minato, which is not at all what others have been led to believe it is. It seems that Mr. Hori is not the only bodyguard that Yori has. But that’s because there’s more to the boys’ relationship than anyone knows. And, when they mysteriously disappear, their absence raises more questions than ever before. Add to that several other cryptic developments that impact the overarching storyline, such as the breakout of a major fire at a nearby high-rise gentlemen’s club and the landfall of a typhoon, and the mystery deepens further. From this, it immediately becomes apparent that no one could possibly have had a clear picture of what’s been going on all along, that the pieces of the puzzle are simply that – pieces of a larger whole that nobody understands.

Single mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Ando) seeks answers from those who allegedly impose excessive discipline on her troubled preteen son in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

Only when all of the pieces are assembled – providing a coalescent view of the whole that goes beyond the postulated beliefs of individual onlookers – can anyone know the whole truth of this scenario. Whether anyone is able to reach such a realization, however, depends on being able to envision the accumulation of all of the situation’s separate parts. And that can happen only when we leave ourselves open to such a possibility, one specifically driven by beliefs that allow it. While that may sound implausible to some, it’s not, thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents. It’s unclear how many of us may have heard of this school of thought, but a lack of awareness of it doesn’t rule out its validity for attaining such an outcome.

The implications in this can be staggering. That’s particularly true in the area of judgment (or, more precisely, in the area of judgmentalism). If we were to judge a situation based entirely on our beliefs with little or no hard evidence to back up such conjecture (especially if the speculation only relates to one aspect of the overall scenario), we could be making harsh, irrational or erroneous assessments of the circumstances. And that, in turn, could lead to dire ramifications for those most affected by these ill-informed conclusions.

Recently hired teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama, right) comes under harsh scrutiny from school administrators like Mr. Kumiaki (Akihiro Kakuta, left) for allegedly dispensing excessive discipline against a troubled preteen in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

Think of the impact that could be leveled against those falsely accused (and convicted) in these situations. Is Minato truly the little monster that many contend he is? Or is he simply a misunderstood young man whose actions and behavior have another unseen or mistaken intent underlying them? Conversely, consider the fallout that can result when our beliefs inadvertently lead to us giving a pass to those deserving of deeper scrutiny. Metaphorically speaking, it’s like getting away with murder, the absence of corpses notwithstanding. And, as this story shows, there are several potential culprits in the narrative whose actions and behavior merit a closer look, their deeds coming close to appearing somewhat monstrous themselves.

There are concerns for the accusers in scenarios like this as well. Consider the consequences for those making and pressing incorrect and unfair claims against the supposed suspects. Think of the guilt and potential liabilities that could stem from inflicting such misplaced suspicions. The impact might readily boomerang against those making such accusations, and where would that leave them then?

This is not to suggest that our beliefs don’t have merit in these instances. After all, they’re the building blocks of the reality we create for ourselves. However, we should recognize that they’re the starting point, not the end point, of this process in any of our endeavors, including discovering the truth behind a particular scenario. The role they play here is in pointing us toward the evidence needed to back up our contentions, not the means to verify and validate the innate truth behind them. Is it any wonder, then, that our judicial system calls for the revelation of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” It would seem that this is a wise outlook not just for a court of law, but also for the court of public opinion – not to mention the internal court of our beliefs.

Grade school classmates Minato Mugino (Soya Kurokawa, right) and Yori Hoshikawa ((Hinata Hiiragi, left) are at the center of a widely misunderstood scenario with far-ranging implications in director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s multi-segmented new drama, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). Photo courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.

The perspective from which we view a situation infallibly provides us with a clear, irrefutable picture of its truthfulness, right? But what happens if we encounter someone who witnesses the same incident and comes away from it with a totally different interpretation? Both views can’t be “right,” can they? Or is it possible that none of us can see the totality of a scenario and claim to know everything about it? That’s the core takeaway from this captivating dramatic feature, an ambitious, skillfully crafted tale told from multiple vantage points, all of them “correct” in their own right, despite the myriad differences that distinguish them from one another. Director Kore-eda’s cinematic homage to his famed countryman Kurosawa carefully spins a web combining the picture’s various story threads, reminding us of the old adage of not judging a book by its cover, poignantly illustrating that, no matter how much we may think we know about a particular situation, there’s a good chance we’ll never get a complete picture of it. Kore-eda serves up an eye-opening tale, one that gives us pause to think about our impressions and preconceptions in an age when many of us are all too quick to superficially judge what we see – and in a frequently flawed framework at that. The picture could stand to be a little more swiftly paced at times (especially in the final act), but this is arguably the director’s best and most sensitive work to date, one that, we can only hope, will have the kind of profound impact we need in an age where open-mindedness and tolerance are traits we could all stand to develop to a much greater degree – particularly when pieces of the puzzle are missing.

“Monster” has earned its share of accolades, especially at 2023’s film festivals. At the Cannes Film Festival, the picture took home the Queer Palm Award and the trophy for best screenplay, as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. It was later recognized with the Gold-Q Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. While this offering has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, it has recently been distributed in limited theatrical release, primarily at arthouse cinemas.

Getting to the truth of a matter is something we shouldn’t take lightly. We may never know what’s involved until we take a good hard look at all of the elements involved, particularly those that go beyond the beliefs we hold, no matter how comprehensive we might think they are. Not only will doing so get us to the meat of such matters, but it can also tell us something about ourselves, revealing prejudices, blind spots and aspects of who we are and what we believe when it comes to our dealings with others. We might discover that we possess assumptions that we automatically and unhesitatingly employ, without question or analysis, giving us distorted pictures of the situations and people we face. And one can hardly say there’s any truth in that.

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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