In his first Japanese-language directorial feature since Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest feature Monster was honoured at Cannes 2023 with the Queer Palm and Best Screenplay award. Starring Sakura Ando, the drama follows single mother Saori (Ando) striving to find the truth behind the changing behaviour of her young son Minato (Soya Kurokawa).
From the outset, the change in Minato feels sudden. One moment, he is a happy kid and the next, he is cutting off his hair and getting unexplained injuries, for which he ultimately blames schoolteacher Hori (Eita Nagayama). Saori’s struggles in understanding her son initiates the premise that slowly ventures down a dark and complex path. Although Monster is effectively divided to show the perspectives of Saori, teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) and Minato himself, the lack of a chapter card allows the pacing to maintain its flow while building the ambiguity of both the premise and its characters, shrouding the events further into mystery. Having each “chapter” focus on the perspective of a separate protagonist also allows Kore-eda and screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto to generate layers of intrigue that slowly fill in the gaps of the ever-growing narrative – even fleeting moments that are considered noteworthy are later explained, appeasing audiences with a close eye.
When Monster begins to examine the events from Hori and Minato’s points of view, the film expands on its core theme of abuse. Sakamoto’s tender screenplay delves into the psychological and physical dangers of bullying, harsh words and child abuse, as well as the peer pressure to cave to conformity, so the inability and overall sense of fear of speaking out forces the characters to expand on a growing web of lies that ultimately leads to a tragic realisation. Furthermore, the tense dialogue builds the frustration among the characters by relieving them of culpability – amid various tense scenes, the wronged parties are forced to apologise to save face and the real crimes are never addressed, which bring a painful sense of realism that steadies the narrative’s powerful screenplay.
Although the subject matter is deeply discomforting, Kore-eda’s careful direction draws the audience in developing the rapport among the characters and their respective frustrations. Among them, a focal point is the growing friendship between Minato and classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), which offers a sense of intimacy that is rarely explored among such young characters. While the principal cast drives the compelling narrative, Hinata and Soya’s respective performances as Yori and Minato elevate the conflict between the two boys, as they convey a variety of emotions while navigating an increasingly complicated rapport.
By the time Monster comes full circle (via a powerful typhoon), the outcome of the characters ends on an ambiguous note that surprisingly leaves audiences with an unexpected sense of joy after a multitude of bleakness. With its final moments, Kore-eda puts a cherry on his intricate creation and combined with the late Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s score, adds the flourishes to this beautiful yet heartbreaking tale of childhood.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Yuji Sakamoto
Stars: Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi, Yuko Tanaka
Runtime: 125 minutes