Monster Review | Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate coming of age is an ode to acceptance 

Kore-eda is reborn through this salient boyhood mystery

Monster (2023) dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

Monster marks Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gallant return to his Japanese homeland after the mixed reception of his recent overseas directorial works. Last year, Broker (2022), which, much like Monster, premiered at Cannes Film Festival and garnered a somewhat mixed reception amongst Kore-eda enthusiasts. Our resident Kore-eda diehard, Troy Vimalasatya dubbed the film “A leave from the essentially perfect Kore-eda formula” in his review. However, despite Monster’s homeward shift into a more familiar setting, Kore-eda braves himself into what many critics quickly designate as his Rashomon (1950). A complex, multilayered and non-linear narrative that not so much deconstructs as it fashions empathy into the seemingly irredeemable through jumping between different perspectives and timelines of the story. With his reputation for championing humanism, Kore-eda ascends his directorial raison d’etre and provides voice and acceptance to the subaltern, the ‘monsters’; those who have been de-humanised and cast aside by society. 

The flickering lights of the cityscape, the grating sirens of firetrucks and ambulances, a hostess club building on fire. That imagery marks the beginning and temporal anchor of the film. Monster is divided into three interconnected parts, with each transition taking us back into that dramatic scene through the eyes of the different characters witnessing it before we view the story from their perspective. The comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon are certainly justified if we take this structure in mind. However, unlike Rashomon’s theme and usage of deceit and unreliable narrators, Monster uses these different parts to divulge forthright truths and emotions about the characters. The mystery structure does not mislead the audience but is rather an honest disclosure of its themes and messages. 

The first part of this looping narrative follows single mother Saori (Sakura Ando), a working-class woman trying to get by raising her elementary school son Minato (Soya Kurokawa). After Minato starts behaving in a disquieting manner which does not befit a healthy, happy young boy, Saori discovers that her son is being abused by his schoolteacher Hori (Eita Nagayama). The mother then goes to the school to appeal to the seemingly callous principal Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka) in a bid for justice. Kore-eda channels director Mikio Naruse’s gender perspective in criticizing Japanese society with Saori’s battle against the school; the teachers make repeated derogatory mentions of her status as a single mother and the stereotype of them being overprotective of their children, one teacher calls single mothers “monsters”, a recurring phrase in the film. Ando’s performance is certainly one of the pinnacle highlights of the film, similar to her stellar work in Shoplifters (2018). The contrast between her happy-go-lucky, ‘cool mom’ attitude to Minato and her unrelenting, vehement plea to the school ties the three interconnected paths together and strongly presents what is at stake.

Kore-eda, in this first section, elucidates, from his perspective, Japan’s obsession with apologies and immediate punitive actions over comprehensive due process. The cold principal and the teachers involved diverted Saori’s complaint with apologies stacked on top of apologies, with little headway done in an actual investigation. Empty, overwhelming apologies with multiple heads bowed deeply, serve to discourage Saori to press forward with the allegations. The exceptionally formal apology “moushiwake gozaimasen deshita”, which means something along the lines of “I have no excuse” is insisted onto Saori repeatedly. The entire bureaucratic process of dealing with allegations serves to save the face of interested parties while treating the victims as a nuisance. 

Minato (Soya Kurokawa) & Saori (Sakura Ando)

The mystery of Monster continues to be unravelled in the second and final parts of the film, each going back to the scene of the hostess club fire and following the event of the previous parts from a different perspective. This hostess club fire and the intrigue of who started it and why is a lingering question throughout the film. We are also introduced to another key element in the greater picture, Minato’s friend Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), a boy who is bullied by his classmates for his feminine constitution. The budding relationship between these two lies close to the precipice of the answer to this grand mystery, their chemistry and dynamic exude empathy and a plea for acceptance. 

It is through the eyes of children do Kore-eda and writer Yuji Sakamoto draw a nuanced and warm reflection of the adults who have been tainted by prejudices and are also actively passing it down to their offspring. In the case of Yori, an all-encompassing demand to be masculine from his father (Nakamura Shidō II), classmates and even teachers — despite his predisposition — illustrates the depths of childhood trauma and its immediate consequences for the individual. Kore-eda depicts this process of moulding a person as a top-down edifice, the adults indoctrinate the children by imposing intangible constructs that are replicated and copied by children. The film makes mention of ‘otokorashi’, an adjective used to describe something manly or behaving like how a man should. In one scene, a physical education teacher tells the students who are building a human pyramid to take it like a man and not let it fall apart. Through suffering, Yori’s demeanour is one unbefitting of his age, he is not mature through experience and yet he possesses a lucid comprehension of his surroundings and other people that only a child of torment would have.

While dealing with children, Kore-eda does not engage in the theme of innocence, but instead a pensive discussion on the fragile yet resilient constitution of a child, who is ever impressionable to their surroundings but at the same time, headstrong in their needs and wants. Known for his gentle guiding hands for child actors, Kore-eda once more moulds unbelievably realistic and empathetic performances from the marvellous Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi, both of whom deserve the highest of praise now and when this film is available worldwide. 

The looping narrative structure of Monster strengthens the film in many ways, the film’s mystery and the actions of the characters remain ambiguous and mayhap even wicked when we only see them in passing and through the eyes and words of others. Each section of the film has its own ‘monster’, a person that the characters view as non-human, an unfeeling force of nature that only seek to destroy the state of normalcy. The film grips your sympathy and utter disdain before twisting and mangling them into an amalgamation of different emotions. 

Nonetheless, this non-chronological spiral is also one of my main complaints about the film, despite also believing that the film cannot be anything else but this. The film is not so convoluted that you cannot understand everything in one viewing, an earnest attentiveness would shine a bright light on the enigma of the tale. However, it also leaves many unsatisfying questions to some of the film’s main characters — especially the adults — where the turbulences and outcomes of their struggle are left ambiguous until the end. Not in a manner that warrants an open-ended interpretation, but one where it was simply cut short prematurely. Fortunately, the inverse of this is that the children of Monster — their relationships and stories — are given prominence and a nuanced depth that allows you to peel through the psychology of adolescent trauma and the consequences of such neglect.  

The late Ryuichi Sakamoto also contributed his music to Monster’s magnificent score. Sakamoto had a particular interest in the sounds of nature, or sometimes the facade of silence it exuded, like when he included ambient sounds of the Arctic he recorded himself in his album Out of Noise. As such, the music of Monster is discrete, it dribbles in irregular intervals. Sometimes the score is barely noticeable, Sakamoto’s piano is subtle and melancholic. Like the typhoon that appears later in the film, the score intermittently deluges the senses and showers us with a beautiful melody. If you stick around for the credits, there is also a special tribute message for Ryuichi Sakamoto at the end.

The Japanese release for Monster appears at an opportune time for Japanese society, showing in the current era where the themes of acceptance and understanding of different identities are at a societal precipice. Queer themes and discussions on patriarchal masculinity are not portrayed as often as they should in the context of children, and Monster delivers that and a poignant and compassionate coming-of-age drama that is sure to be placed amongst Kore-eda’s best in the long run, albeit it will also be heavily scrutinized for its atypical structure among other works in his filmography. Monster is sure to impress when the film hits the global, non-festival audience. 

Final Rating
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