If there’s one Japanese director of live-action film that can still easily be counted on to make thoughtful, high-quality cinema with appeal beyond the domestic market, it’s Kore-eda Hirokazu (是枝裕和). With a library that includes After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and 2018’s Oscar-nominated Shoplifters, Kore-eda has been creating deeply human, quietly devastating films for over two decades. Now, with his new film Monster (「怪物」, “Kaibutsu“), Kore-eda has returned to Japanese-language cinema for the first time in half a decade.
Monster is the type of film you think about for days after you see it. It’s also the sort of movie that’s desperately hard to discuss without giving away plot and structural points perhaps best discovered via simply watching the film. It tackles concepts that are universal, but which also weigh particularly on the mind of many in Japanese society; conformity, bullying, othering, peer pressure, abuse within the school system. These subjects are taken on via the limited prism of personal observation; there’s always more to the story lurking, unseen.
The result is a complex film showcasing timely anxieties in a firmly Kore-eda-style package; something that works out quite well, given this is also the first time in nearly thirty years that he’s directed a film based on someone else’s script. And while Monster‘s direction feels all Kore-eda’s, the movie’s surprising structure recalls a much older work by another master filmmaker: Kurosawa Akira‘s seminal Rashomon (1950).
Monster Hunting with Kore-eda
I went to the theater to see this film knowing nearly nothing about it; after Shoplifters, one of the best Japanese films of the past decade, I was more than willing to see Kore-eda’s newest sight unseen. Of all his movies, this might be the one most worth approaching in that way. However, thematically, it’s not the sort of movie I could recommend everyone just head out and see. Monster is dark, and almost suffocatingly so for much of its runtime. Seeing much of what makes it so memorable takes wading through a good deal of unpleasantness. If you can handle that, I might recommend skipping the rest of this review. If you want to know more, however, read on.
A very basic description of the film’s core plot:
Saori (Ando Sakura, who also appeared in Shoplifters) is a single mother living in a lake-bound, mid-sized city in Nagano. Her son, Minato (Kurokawa Soya), is generally well-adjusted; however, she starts to notice some strange behavior. He spaces out and acts self-destructively, very differently from the son she knows. Minato hints at something disturbing going on regarding his elementary homeroom teacher, Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita). Saori takes the issue to the school, facing down the self-protecting edifice of the local education system. Beneath the surface, however, lies a series of truths beyond the perception of each individual.
The inherent question referenced by the film’s title is just who this “Monster” is. It’s in framing this question, much like Rashomon‘s samurai-era murder trial, in which each involved person describes the inciting incident differently, that the multivariate nature of human perception and truth boils to the surface. There’s rarely a singular “monster” in society, as perhaps there is not a single villain in Minato’s seeming victimization. This idea is already interesting enough, if not exactly novel. From there, however, the film goes in even more intriguing directions. Here, Kore-eda’s humanizing direction meshes well with a societally perceptive script by Sakamoto Yuji.
One of the many core themes in Monster revolves around how much of a child’s life remains hidden from a parent, even an attentive one. Minato is young, an elementary schooler. While he’s reaching the age when children begin to yearn for independence, he’s still very much a child. And yet, even at an age when parents retain a good deal of control, so much goes on beyond the range of their vision. Saori is forced to act, desperately, forcefully, on the little information she does have. She must protect her son as best she can, but how much can she truly know about what goes on in his life away from her, in the confines of school and the forests and streams he’s taken to venturing off into?
The school, meanwhile, seems to be purposefully obscuring just what is going on. Many the world over will recognize the frustration of running up against a self-protecting bureaucratic entity; the portrayal here, however, is all Japanese. The closed ranks; the canned apologies in the most purely polite and deferential keigo language; the mutterings and refusals to make any personal statement from the heart, less you deviate from the prescribed form and bring harm upon the organizational whole. Like so many great Japanese films, Monster is both universal and particular. Anyone who has dealings with the Japanese school system will recognize some unsettling truths here.
But what do the school officials really know, anyway? What do they see of Minato’s life, or of his homeroom teacher’s actions? Does the system even care about perceiving the little details of the lives of its young charges, or of its underpaid and overworked teaching staff? Here, too, the range of vision is limited and incomplete.
And yet, children themselves often know the least of all. Their world is purposefully siloed. Parents and teachers worry about what secrets are being kept from them, all while purposefully obscuring much of the world from children. When all this lack of perception becomes embroiled in a single, traumatic, publicized frenzy, the ramifications can be hard to predict.
As Monster progresses, the audience can feel the dark path being laid, only to have a new perspective laid bare; soon, we have more knowledge of the elements at play than any single character here could. In Rashomon, the fallibility of human memory, perception, and, thus truth, is called into question. Monster makes us question our sense of truth when so many facts can never be personally known to us.
Worth the Wait
These are all weighty themes, ones that seem quite dark given real-life stories of bullying and abuse coming out of Japanese schools. But, like the best of Kore-eda’s work, the darkness is far from all there is to Monster. There are also moments of joy, and of childhood adventure and discovery. Monster has a real sense of humanity at its heart. It’s these moments, eschewing the overall depressing tone of the film, that lift it up, making it something special; something real.
Kore-eda continually takes on upsetting societal issues, as in his childhood abandonment-themed breakout film, Nobody Knows. There, too, little moments of daily joy help ground a film that would otherwise be unendurably morose. In Monster, the morosity threatens to overtake any enjoyment the film could offer; then, at last, a shift in perspective reminds us that life is rarely just a series of human tragedies.
Still, this may be a tough film to get through for some viewers. You can likely perceive whether or not this is the sort of movie you can put yourself through; for viewers who can, you’ll be rewarded with much to think about, a tightly written script, and a series of great performances. You’ll also likely come away surprised, and I imagine particular plot points will bring much discussion in the coming months as more people see it.
Monster, while perhaps not Kore-eda’s most emotionally rich film, is yet another great movie that proves Japanese cinema is alive and well. And like much great cinema, its leaves us thinking about our own society – and how much we fail to perceive in the lives of others.
An interesting addendum:
The elementary school, one of the primary settings of the film, was shot on location at an abandoned school building in Nagano. Other locales throughout the film showcase nature overtaking local infrastructure, the town (the picturesque Suwa City, Nagano) fading into the forested mountains that surround it.
As Japan’s population shrinks, and towns like Suwa depopulate, it can sometimes feel like we’re losing our grip on society itself. This theme dovetails well with the recent anime hit, Suzume, which also featured an abandoned school building (although an in-universe one, unlike the school in Monster.)
Even in a film not directly focused on population decline, little connections to that theme – in the back of the minds of so many here in Japan – manage to creep in.
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