Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda began by making documentaries, and the best of his fiction films seem as much observed as written. That’s not true of “Monster,” which is lovely and tender but conspicuously contrived. Significantly, the child-centric drama is just the second of Kore-eda’s 16 features to be made from someone else’s script.
Yuji Sakamoto’s scenario (which won the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival) takes three swipes at the story, in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of “Rashomon.” Each version begins at or near the same event, one that’s unusually violent for a Kore-eda film: the arson of a multistory commercial building in a small lakefront city in the mountains of central Japan. Each segment recounts one variation on the tale, with a different idea of just who the titular monster might be. A black screen marks a rewind, and soon that building is ablaze again.
In the first telling, young widow Saori (Sakura Ando) battles to protect her 11-year-old son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) from the teacher she suspects is abusing him, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), who, it is implied, may or may not be the monster of the title. The second follows Hori, revealing him to be a more sympathetic character. (One of his co-workers tells him that parents are monsters.) The third telling focuses on Minato and Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), a classmate with whom Minato has a complicated and furtive relationship. (This time, we see that several people who might have been considered monsters are simply fallible human beings.)
Alongside Saori and Hori are two other notable adult characters: the school principal, Mrs. Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka), who has just returned to work after a family catastrophe, and Hori’s father, Kiyotaka (Shido Nakamura), who’s barely on-screen but whose influence on events is substantial.
Kiyotaka is divorced and, like Saori, is raising a fifth-grader without a partner. This circumstance speaks to a frequent Kore-eda theme: the conflict between Japan’s emphasis on traditional families and the contemporary reality of fractured or improvised ones, like the larcenous brood of the director’s “Shoplifters.”
A similar tension animates Saori’s meetings with Hori, Fushimi and other school administrators. Minato’s mom is frustrated by how the officials seek to conceal student-teacher strife behind a veil of empty, ritualistic apologies. “What actually happened doesn’t matter,” Fushimi assures Hori before he rehearses his formal statement of regret.
“Shoplifters” star Ando is memorably fierce as Minato’s mother, and Tanaka develops Fushimi’s character through an astonishing transformation. But, as is often the case in Kore-eda movies, the expertly directed child actors are the most compelling. The relationship between Minato and Yori is quite different from that of the brothers in the director’s “I Wish,” and yet is reminiscent of it. Notably similar is the boys’ childlike half-belief in magical possibilities, underlying both their fears and their hopes.
Minato and Yori’s musings on being remade or reborn, sometimes shared with adults who are concerned by them, meld sci-fi speculation with Buddhist dogma. But isn’t it reasonable for Minato to obsess about the afterlife following a birthday party for his late father in which a slice of cake is offered to a photo of the dead man?
The delicate and engrossing “Monster” is characteristic of the style of its director, who also edited the film. The mood set by Ryuto Kondo’s cinematography is heightened by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s impressionist score, which includes some of the last music he composed before his death this year.
The film’s least gentle aspect is the script, which hints several times that someone has plunged or will plunge from a roof or balcony, and which is bracketed by both the opening conflagration and a monsoon that drenches the story’s multiple conclusions. Despite its sometimes overwrought mystery-tale gambits, however, “Monster” ultimately shifts from a saga of fateful misunderstanding to one of mutual comprehension. In the final moment of the story’s third telling, the sun comes out.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains bullying, mature thematic elements related to dying and brief suggestive material. In Japanese with subtitles. 126 minutes.