Review: Monster (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Monster is not about abuse or the violence we might inflict on each other but about how those things are felt by the characters.”

“A monster lies in wait in me,
A stew of wounds and misery,
But fiercer still in life and limb,
The me that lies in wait in him.”
― Clive Barker

There is an undeniable motif connecting Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest films: family. To be more precise, how children deal with and are affected by the topic’s complexity. Who these children love is brought to the fore instead of the story of the people who (legally) speak for them. In this context, films like Broker (2022), Shoplifters (2018) and Like Father, Like Son (2013) act as an examination of a society that constantly quotes “blood is thicker than water“, unconcerned with the fact that the actual saying is “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb“, meaning exactly the opposite.

In this sense Kore-eda’s Monster tells a story close to his previous films and also examines what constitutes a family. This time through a Rashomon-like structure in which we follow the story of Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and his mother, Saori Mugino (a brilliant Sakura Ando, who consolidates herself as one of the best actresses of her generation). An uneventful life that is abruptly changed when Minato’s behavior becomes erratic and the only answer he can provide is that his teacher Michitoshi Hori (Eita Nagayama) hit him during class. Thus, we follow these three characters’ different points of view as they try to come to terms with what is happening to them.

However, despite the clear thematic continuity between his latest works, Monster reminded me of Kore-eda’s early career as a documentary filmmaker, especially his film called August Without Him (1994) about Hirata Yutaka, the first openly gay AIDS patient in Japan. For several months Kore-eda followed Hirata’s daily life and documented his condition deteriorating, his gradual blindness, and his eventual death. From travels to his hometown to several public appearances, Kore-eda’s camera, initially a distant gaze, gradually becomes first a bedridden Hirata’s only contact with the exterior world, and later a friend as the dying man asks the director to keep on visiting him, even when he does not want to be filmed anymore.

Kore-eda agrees, and when shooting is no longer an option he reads some of Hirata’s poems, and shows his favorite records, his friends, and all the little things that made Hirata the man that he was. Not a documentary about the AIDS crisis in Japan but a film about a man who wanted to live longer, August Without Him already showcased the director’s humanist approach and gentle gaze towards complex people and their complex lives and problems. In the same way, Monster is not about abuse or the violence we might inflict on each other but about how those things are felt by its characters.

Here, Kore-eda’s motif is turned into an examination of the familiarity of the monsters that hurt us, for each one of these characters has their own pain and is the reason why someone else is in pain. The different points of view are never used to exploit the film’s topics and reduce them to a ‘whodunit’ narrative. On the contrary, no one has the bigger picture because it is not possible to. In this sense his characters become each other’s monsters not by the harm they inflict but by stopping being a human being. By pretending to listen, pretending to pay attention, pretending to care.

Minato, for instance, once mocked during a presentation in his school for saying that he wanted to be like his mother when he grew up, sees his life changing as he befriends Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), a classmate that is constantly bullied. “You can’t tell anyone that we’re friends“, says Minato to the boy that would eventually become both his first love and a scapegoat for the attention and violence that might be put onto him had Yori not been there. Minato likes Yori but protecting him from his bullies is too great a risk to take.

This is the common ground that unites these characters: hurt people hurt people. Saori is a single mother trying to find out what has happened to her only son. One day at work she hears from a co-worker that her son’s teacher was seen in the company of a bar hostess, a behaviour not suitable for a man of his stature. When her son tells her that his teacher hit him, she goes to school repeatedly looking for justice and does not hesitate in mentioning Hori’s personal life in one of these meetings. She feels forced to as the school principals weren’t listening to her. Protocols and rehearsed politeness are getting in her way. She doesn’t want an apology, she wants a solution. Michitoshi Hori, on the other hand, even though surprised by the accusations, seems to believe that he is the victim of an over-protective single mother who was smothering her child. He even says that in one of these parent-teacher meetings, even though he was raised by a single mother himself. Heated discussions ensue in front of a principal who never shows any emotion but makes sure to display her dead grandson’s picture on her table, actively trying to elicit an empathic response from the parents that come to her office.

So at its core Monster, one of the most inspired Queer Palm award winners, is a family drama that soars because it uses the Rashomon effect to provide a bigger picture, a context that makes its characters’ actions meaningful, not to exploit them for a ‘surprise’ moment or shock value; in this sense, it acts almost as a complete antithesis to Lukas Dhont’s Close (2022). Kore-eda gradually connects the dots and understands that he can only give us some pieces of this puzzle, for Saori, Hori and Minato’s stories overlap each other but there is a gap between them that might be too large to overcome. To sum it all up, the only thing they can do, the only thing anyone can do, is keep on trying to act as humans, not as monsters, in hope that one day it might come naturally to them.