‘Monster’ review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s return to Japan is a nuanced morality tale | Cannes
Monster marks the seventh in-competition film at Cannes for Hirokazu Kore-eda, who directed last year’s tender Korean film Broker. Back in his native Japan, Kore-eda delivers a nuanced tale of humanity told from many differing perspectives. Monster is dedicated to late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who truly makes his mark in his final film with a remarkably emotional score that pairs perfectly with the actions on screen.
A burning building, home to a notorious hostess bar, lights up the night sky as the film begins. It’s here where Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama) is introduced, he’s a 5th-grade teacher at the school that Minato (Soya Kurokawa), the main character, goes to. Saori (Sakura Ando), Minato’s mum, becomes suspicious of what her son has been up to after he comes home bruised and bloody. She visits the school after setting an appointment with the headmistress to discuss the possible physical abuse that her son had suffered. She is oddly apologised to by the school staff, who seem to have rehearsed their every word. However, something is awry as Mr Hori seems to be there, saying things, against his will.
Everything changes as Kore-eda revisits the opening blaze but from an alternative perspective. Being lensed differently, shot closer to the fire and focusing this time on Mr Hori’s POV, the bigger picture becomes clearer as we explore what truly happened. Did he hit Minato and is there a reason for his mood? Things shift again as Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), Minato’s supposed friend, is introduced. He is an easygoing child that is bullied non-stop by his father; one who claims he has a “pig brain” that needs to be replaced, and also by those at school. This POV showcases the most insightful and meaningful side of the story, revealing the inner feelings of Minato through his interactions with school friend Eri.
The film’s structure marks a departure from Kore-eda’s go-to style as he opts for more plot-driven writing, letting the audience uncover the true story and emotions on show. This choice to deviate from his past work is likely influenced by the fact that he’s not credited as a screenwriter, Yûji Sakamoto wrote the screenplay. This deviation is further seen with the mood being generally more bleak, although nothing is explicitly dark as the title suggests, than most Kore-eda movies. Monster is much more than the suburban drama it begins as, it’s a nuanced moral tale about the impact that actions, notions and words have on developing children. It can be overly convoluted at times, but it’s ultimately satisfying with its payoff.
Shoplifters cinematographer Ryoto Kondo pairs up with Kore-eda for this film, his lensing and lighting here is all about being naturalistic. There is nothing too dynamic to the images, the story doesn’t beckon for such cinematography. What it does ask for is for Kondo to support Kore-eda’s humanist vision, which he does wonderfully by making the audience feel like an observer, close to the action.
Young stars Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi are seriously impressive here, they are the standouts as they deliver their lines and actions with great composure. The two kids become close friends but as they start doing everything together, it’s hinted that they have feelings for each other. This is where a lot of the confusion to do with the “monster” of the film comes from, as Sakamoto’s narrative neglects to let us into Minato’s mind until the latter parts of the film. Although his actions seem brash and he’s seriously affected by the loss of his father, it’s something far more current as to why he’s acting out and the “monster” is just an idea rather than something literal. Adding to Kore-eda’s ensemble, Sakura Ando carries the first chapter with fiery passion as her character tries to uncover the truth about Mr Hori and Minato. Eita Nagayama is equally as good in his section of the film as he showcases the real side of Mr Hori, unlike the villain he’s framed as being in the initial chapter. This is again another facet which is unveiled as the narrative progresses, it actually makes for some seriously good character development as we are led to make quick conclusions before having to entirely reconsider our instincts.
One is reminded of the way that Guillermo Del Toro talks about monsters and creatures. By humanising those accused of being the worst of the worst, Kore-eda lets the “monsters” tell their part of the story truthfully and insightfully. They are not a threat but just tormented souls plagued by the lack of tolerance that society has for those who are different. Kore-eda has kept hold of his naturalist touch, while significantly amending his storytelling by collaborating with sole screenwriter Sakamoto. Monster manages to not meander too much beyond what’s necessary which is an excellent feat considering the complexity of the story. It can now be said: Kore-eda has done it again.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
Photo: Kaibutsu © DR