For those who have raised children or are in the process, Monster (Kaibutsu), the new film by Japanese veteran Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a must-watch. Every parent knows that feeling when their child starts behaving strangely. You quickly assume there must be an external reason. Is your child being bullied at school? Is the swim teacher acting odd? We can’t even bear to think what must have happened to them. And just like the single mother in Monster, we are quick to draw conclusions. Off she goes, storming to the school to find answers.
But let’s start at the beginning of the film, with the opening scenes. An apartment building is on fire in a Japanese city. Eleven-year-old Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and his mother, Saori (Sakura Ando), watch from their balcony. They seem well connected, mother and son. You think she’s a good mother.
Soon after the fire, rumors spread that there was a brothel in the building and that some children saw their teacher, Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama) coming out of it. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Saori hears this story too. When her son starts behaving oddly—talking about pig brains and making strange notes and drawings—she goes to his school. There, she finds herself in bizarre situations with a delegation including the headteacher and her son’s teacher, Mr Hori. All they do is bow – a common practice in Japan, but taken to extremes here. Meanwhile, her son becomes even stranger and more withdrawn. It seems like he’s possessed, as he repeatedly sings “I am the monster”.
Then we return to the burning building scene, and the film starts again from another perspective, that of Mr Hori, the teacher. We see what happened from his point of view. Later on, we also partially see it from others, like the headteacher, from Minato’s friend, and finally from that of Minato himself. It’s of course a tried and tested recipe for films to tell events from different viewpoints, and to do so in chapters. A very stylish example is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), which also retells the same story from various characters’—crooks and criminals in that case—perspectives. Imagine something similar with ordinary people who mean no harm. Despite this, events can still spiral out of control.
Monster, written by Yûyi Sakamoto (the script won in Cannes last year), is not only complex and layered, but also confrontational. It challenges your own prejudices, values, and standards. Why, for example, are you so quick to draw the conclusion that Saori is a good mother? Or without knowing any details, you may assume Mr. Hori is bad? In Kora-eda’s films, no one is ever entirely ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. We saw this in his previous film Broker (Beurokeo, 2022), where a mother leaves a newborn baby to smugglers with their own motives, and they all (mother, smugglers) have their own story.
Monster explores our fears: fear for our children’s wellbeing, public humiliation, not being loved, making mistakes, and vulnerability. The director shows that ‘the Truth’ doesn’t exist; everyone has their own version of it. And next to that, we have our quirks and blind spots, that’s what makes us human. Understanding this could make the world better.
The film also urges us to think before drawing conclusions and lets us realize that children are not mere extensions of their parents. They have their own development and yes, that is influenced by external factors, but also by their magical thinking and imagination. It seems like adults nowadays find these two aspects scarier and scarier. In Monster, friendship, love between children of the same sex, and conflicting feelings all play a part. It’s an impressive film in which Japanese veteran Kore-eda stays true to his themes’ and still surprises us.
Clementine Van Wijngaarden
Edited by Savina Petkova
© FIPRESCI 2023