Words by Siddhant Adlakha
When it comes to shifting points of view, Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon has long been a de facto touchstone. It’s a film likely to be invoked when discussing Monster (or Kaibutsu), director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s first Japanese feature since the family drama Shoplifters, which won him the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or in 2018. After The Truth in French and Broker in Korean (which won Best Actor at Cannes), Kore-eda returns to the Riviera with a puzzle-box film about a single mother who suspects her son is being tormented by his teacher—though it soon unfurls in unexpected ways. Like Rashomon and its descendants, it’s a story told in several chapters, each doubling back on the film’s chronology to reveal conflicting accounts. However, unlike Rashomon, which depicts slightly differing versions of events in their entirety, Monster is woven from threads of information gathered from each perspective—a missed bit of context here; a rush to judgment there—revealing, in the end, a riveting tapestry that’s as shattering as it is gentle in its portrait of queerness and childhood secrets.
Kore-eda’s Shoplifters actress Ando Sakura plays Mugino Saori, a widowed single mother who tries to maintain a sunny disposition. She spends her days working at the local laundromat and her evenings looking after her son, Minato (Kurokawa Soya), a lanky, sensitive fifth grader whose behavior grows increasingly strange, between his occasionally erratic outbursts, and his claims that he has the brain of a pig. On the birthday of her late husband—Minato’s father—a dark cloud settles over the boy, manifesting as sudden questions about rebirth and mortality, questions which Saori doesn’t seem prepared to answer. However, the more concerning oddities include Minato’s mysterious injuries when he returns home from school, leading Saori to wonder just what’s going on with his new homeroom teacher, Hori Michitoshi (Nagayama Eita).
When Saori brings her concerns to the school, what follows is a frustrating saga of administrative stonewalling, between the carefully crafted legal language with which the institution frames Hori’s actions, and the seeming unwillingness of the elderly principal, Fushimi Makiko (Tanaka Yuko), to acknowledge any wrongdoing, or even meet Saori’s gaze. The school seems intent on brushing the issue aside as quickly (and inhumanely) as possible, though Hori does let slip that Minato might also be responsible for unsavory actions towards a fellow student, Hoshikawa Yori (Hiiragi Hinata), who’s smaller and meeker, and frequently bullied for his “girlish” interests. With all these pieces in play, Saori sets off on her own investigation, in order to discover what people might be capable of—whether Hori, the principal, or even her own son.
However, after skillfully escalating these tensions—in the vein of a psychological thriller about a disturbed child—Kore-eda and screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji pivot in head-spinning fashion, filling in the gaps in Saori’s story not through her own discoveries, but through Hori’s experiences. This switch seems, at first, like an exercise in presenting the clashing outlooks and self-perceptions of two adults at odds. It depicts the innocent origins of distasteful rumors about Hori, and the pleasant way he interacts with his other students (including Yori, of whom he seems protective), but the layers to these interactions are only fully realized in retrospect. Just as events begin to add up from Hori’s perspective, new details begin to contextualize the story even further, as Kore-eda doubles back one more time, revealing tidbits about Minato’s complicated dynamic with Yori, the emotional centerpiece of the film’s devastating (yet entirely life-affirming) final chapter.
Listing every specific would be saying too much in advance, but the tenderness with which Kore-eda unveils the dimensions to both Minato and Yori is a marvelous act of cinematic sleight of hand.
Listing every specific would be saying too much in advance, but the tenderness with which Kore-eda unveils the dimensions to both Minato and Yori is a marvelous act of cinematic sleight of hand. He transforms a story of repressed monstrousness into one of adolescent beauty, a narrative transition that becomes particularly moving when the film begins exploring its queer subtext in depth.
Kore-eda and cinematographer Kondo Ryuto spend much of the film’s first chapter building their world in relation to Saori, be it the way she sees her son, or the inhumane constraints placed on her motherhood. In the school offices, close ups of her desperate expression are usually framed, on all sides, by the out-of-focus bodies of disingenuous officials—even as they bow to her in apology—closing in as if she were being choked by institutional red tape. The film has no qualms about her dedication as a mother, but in presenting her as central within the frame—Ando’s energy commands each cut, and sets the tone of every scene—it renders Minato’s framing a secondary concern whenever they share the screen. Saori’s love is real, but Monster frames Minato as an enigma obscured behind a mop of messy hair, with very good reason. When the story is eventually told from his perspective, it finally catches head-on glimpses of him during familiar moments, revealing everything from his hidden smile to the nuanced uncertainty with which he navigates the world. Is it possible his mother doesn’t truly know him—and is that not just as tragic?
As Minato, Kurokawa is shouldered with a delicate balance between embarrassment, infatuation, and rage, a combination that comes off as mysterious, dangerous, even pitiable to anyone viewing the character from the outside—or, in the case of how he’s framed from Saori’s perspective, simply from an oblique angle. Yori is similarly presented as an enigma at first, an unusually upbeat child who says weird things and welcomes strangers into his home. But what the film reveals about Yori is just as challenging to the audience as it is to Hiiragi, the young actor playing him. In tandem, Kurokawa and Hiiragi are tasked with unearthing hidden truths for the camera in scenes centering their fraught friendship—truths which they conceal during the preceding chapters, about Minato and Yori’s mutual affection, and the underlying reasons for their respective ways of being. This in turn allows the two boys to create a hidden emotional world known only to the two of them, expressed in in-jokes and secret hideouts, a world which Kore-eda carefully reveals to the audience (with the help of a thoughtful score made mostly of existing pieces by the late Sakamoto Ryuichi, along with two original compositions).
Kore-eda’s spellbinding command of dramatic nuance is best embodied by the film’s clashing perspectives on Hori. There’s Saori’s view of him, and then there’s his own, a sharp, seemingly irreconcilable contrast which thrusts the film into emotional limbo, given how powerfully each opposing perspective is dramatized. But Monster finds a way to reconcile these warring halves not through compromise, or even mutual understanding, but a secret third thing, which changes their very nature. Often, Rashomon-esque stories are about what the characters see, and how they see things, but Monster is about what’s missed, and what’s concealed by design.
Kore-eda, serving once again as his own editor, creates a temporal relationship between each chapter by having characters cross paths during charged emotional moments—for instance, Hori at one point intercepts Minato while he’s engaged in a violent tantrum—but a later scene that revisits this moment pulls back the curtain of what led to this outburst. Where withholding this context would ordinarily feel like cheating the audience, in Monster, it serves a vital purpose. It first allows pre-conceived narratives to more easily solidify as events whiz by frenetically. Later, it allows those narratives to shatter like glass, when their implications are more fully explored in the form of bearing witness to previously unseen buildup (and on occasion, unseen follow-through) to pre-existing scenes. When they return, they play out more thoughtfully, with more caution, and with a more outstretched, open-hearted approach to capturing the drama that was previously withheld. It feels like being forced to see the best and worst in someone, inside and out, even after you’re convinced you know all there is to know.
Where withholding this context would ordinarily feel like cheating the audience, in Monster, it serves a vital purpose. It first allows pre-conceived narratives to more easily solidify as events whiz by frenetically. Later, it allows those narratives to shatter like glass.
On one hand, Monster begins as a story of a mother willing to do anything for her child, even if it means knocking down systemic hurdles. On the other hand, it also reveals itself to be a tale of rushed judgment. However, before it becomes some reactionary screed on “cancel culture” (the film has no such intentions; this is merely one of several emerging possibilities as it lays its foundation), it unearths heretofore unseen layers of both Hori’s and Saori’s most innocuous comments and ideas—even those intended as words of encouragement—and how adults leave their mark, in ways they may not even realize. The only thing the film does differently, in order to scrutinize these words and actions in retrospect, is that it first treads a winding path through the fully-formed lives of its richly-sketched pre-teen characters.
In the process, its smattering of odd and concerning details—drawings of monsters, missing shoes, even off-key musical notes played in the distance—begin snapping into place, often in heart-rending ways. The film reframes them from the inside out, as secrets spoken in a hidden language, shared only by those for whom it was created. It is, in effect, the experience of both queerness and burgeoning imagination, depicted not only hand-in-hand, but as one and the same, in a film where pain and isolation are, by necessity, adsorbed and redirected outward. The resultant modes of expression are ugly and soulful in equal measure, with silent beats that ruminate on life’s larger mysteries—like death and existence—with the same weight and importance as a ten-year-old’s question of what tomorrow may hold, making Monster one of the most poetic works in Kore-eda’s already deeply humanist oeuvre.
Published on May 21, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter