Japan 2023, 126 mins
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

An incident of classroom misconduct – and its ramifications, both domestic and institutional – plays out from three different vantage points in Monster. ‘Perspectives’ wouldn’t quite be the right term: though each section of Hirokazu Koreeda’s elegantly folded new film leads with a different character, the action is never shown explicitly through anyone’s eyes. Reverse angles and newly adjacent, contextualising scenes shift our conception of blame and victimhood in a story that narrows from one of a hostile community to intimate, ecstatic isolation.

Rashomon (1950) has been raised repeatedly by critics as a reference point since Monster premiered at Cannes last year, but it’s hardly the same. Koreeda’s film doesn’t pit contradicting stories against each other; rather, it layers accounts fraught with blind spots and psychological frailties – building a bigger picture while stressing everyone’s essential unknowability. At Cannes, Monster won the Queer Palme for the best LGBTQ+ story; it’s indicative of the film’s lithe, shimmying structure that viewers may spend the bulk of its running time mystified as to why.

For Koreeda, the film marks both a homecoming – to Japanese cinema, after somewhat ungainly excursions to France (The Truth, 2019) and South Korea (Broker, 2022) – and a departure. It’s his first feature since his 1995 debut Maborosi that he hasn’t written, and while Yūji Sakamoto’s elaborately diagrammatic screenplay plays to Koreeda’s strengths with its fine-grained family drama and empathetic focus on children, its narrative switches and reversals require more opacity and emotional reticence than is customary from his filmmaking.

It begins with a building ablaze on the squat skyline of a small, unspecified Japanese city; a freak rainstorm will bookend proceedings, the elements twice uncannily intervening in a story of human impulse and foible. On one floor of the burning block is a hostess bar supposedly frequented by mild-mannered primary school teacher Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama); some distance away, widowed single mother Saori (Sakura Andō, the marvellous star of Koreeda’s 2018 film Shoplifters) watches the inferno with morbid interest from her apartment balcony. Her pre-teen son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) is one of Hori’s students; his mother’s distaste for Hori’s rumoured extracurricular activities will soon factor into a tense bust-up with the school staff.

The hitherto gentle Minato has become sullen and unreadable – cutting his own hair, going awol in a storm drain, jumping from his mother’s moving car. When he comes home from school with a facial injury, saying Hori is responsible, Saori reads the teacher and oddly impassive headmistress Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka) the riot act. She gets repeated deferential apologies, but no explanation; the script is sharp on how a culture of courtesy can impede candour.

After 45 minutes, we rewind to the beginning, with Hori’s knowledge of classroom dynamics recalibrating our perception of Minato’s behaviour. But the teacher’s outburst that Minato is a bully – and his smaller, feyer classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi) his target – doesn’t ring true either: the boys are friends, perhaps chastely more, with an understanding of each other that increasingly excludes their minders.

‘Who is the monster?’ is a recurring question in Koreeda’s film, vocalised by the boys in a taunting, sing-song chant, but essentially paraphrased by adult characters keen to divide the world into villains and victims. Fushimi’s strange, affectless manner stems from the recent death of her grandchild, in which she may have been culpable; Yori’s alcoholic single father (Shidō Nakamura) may be his real abuser, implanting a ludicrous lie in the boy’s mind – that his brain was transplanted with a pig’s – which ripples maliciously through the action.

Some may find this a lot of business to wade through to get to the film’s heart, crystallised in its final third: a naive, intensely pure romance of sorts between two grieving boys, exquisitely played by Hiiragi and Kurokawa. But the friction between adults’ rule-determined antagonism and the unbound emotional and imaginative expression of childhood is essential to the film’s payoff – ineffable tragedy rising into galloping, sunlit release.
Guy Lodge, Sight and Sound, April 2024

Hirokazu Koreeda on ‘Monster’

The film has been compared to Rashomon [1950], but your approach is very different to Kurosawa’s. How do you feel about that?

I understand the comparison, but the name of the film was not often mentioned during the development of the film between screenwriter and producers, and I believe they have fundamentally different structures. Instead, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant [2003] has been brought up. But of course it is an honour to be compared to Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

You spoke to an organisation that supports LGBTQ+ children about the relationship between the two boys in the film. What did you learn from that?

To what extent is the protagonist aware of his own sexuality? For example, does he self-identify by using the word ‘gay’, or is he at an earlier stage where he hasn’t reached that awareness? I was advised to make those points clearer, so I selected and deleted scenes and dialogues according to that advice.

For a lot of parents, once their children are at school – a large part of their lives become unknowable. How do you feel the film explores this idea? Can cinema help us better understand the more mysterious parts of children’s worlds?

In a broad sense, I think it can help. However, before we can ‘understand’, we need to know how much we don’t know, and… we need to acknowledge that we are a threat, and sometimes a perpetrator, to the fragile and sensitive existence of children.

Interview by Katie McCabe, Sight and Sound, April 2024

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Producers: Genki Kawamura, Kenji Yamada, Megumi Banse, Taichi Ito, Hijiri Taguchi
Screenplay: Yūji Sakamoto
Cinematography: Ryūtō Kondo
Editor: Hirokazu Koreeda
Production Design: Keiko Mitsumatsu
Costume Design: Kazuko Kurosawa
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto

Sakura Andō (Saori)
Eita Nagayama (Hori)
Soya Kurokawa (Minato)
Hinata Hiiragi (Yori)
Mitsuki Takahata (Hirona)
Akihiro Kakuta (Shoda)
Shidō Nakamura (Kiyotaka)
Yūko Tanaka (Fushimi)

Japan 2023
126 mins

A Picturehouse Entertainment release

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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