Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by Lawrence Garcia Featured Film Spotlight

Monster — Hirokazu Kore-eda

November 22, 2023

With his latest film Monster, Hirokazu Kore-eda has outdone himself. Rather than make one bad film, as he usually does, the Japanese director has made the equivalent of three, each one worse and more wrongheaded than the last. The first of the film’s three parts opens promisingly enough, centered on a single mother, Saori (Ando Sakura), who finds out that her son, Minato (Kurokawa Soya), is apparently being verbally and physically abused by his schoolteacher, Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita). Short scenes advance the narrative at a brisk clip, following Saori’s attempts to seek restitution from the school, while deliberately obscuring the motivations of every other character. Indeed, the response to Saori’s efforts by the school principal and the other schoolteachers is so inexplicable, so extreme in its bureaucratic politesse, that it would not have been inconceivable for them to be revealed as aliens à la Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish (2017).

Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay doesn’t have anything quite so high-concept in mind. For better and worse, neither the second nor the third sections of Monster — which retell the same events from the perspectives of Mr. Hori and Minato, respectively — come anywhere near approaching sci-fi territory. But what they do include are a series of revelations that gradually drain any sort of mystery from the story, functioning not unlike the hoary network narratives of a previous era, such as Paul Haggis’ monumentally misguided Crash (2004). While Kore-eda’s ostensible aim is to add emotional depth to the story by “humanizing” initially antagonistic figures, Monster effectively does the opposite, turning all and sundry into mere plot mechanisms, cogs  in the script’s increasingly nonsensical pile-up of complications. The emotionless behavior of the school’s principal (Tanaka Yuko), for example, is first explained by the fact that she is still grieving the recent death of her grandchild. Later, we learn that her husband was responsible, having accidentally run the child over in a driveway. Still later, we learn that she was the one responsible, and chose to let her husband take the rap to save face. Similarly, one scene in the final act reveals what we previously assumed is the film’s non-diegetic score to be a product of said principal encouraging Minato to blow his feelings away by playing an instrument in the school’s music room. 

This pattern of misdirection and revelation is indicative of Monster as a whole, but it emerges in full force in the film’s final act, with a reveal that everything we’ve seen thus far is explained by Minato’s incipient same-sex attraction to another student, and his socially-fueled repression of the very same. Some critics have remarked that Monster marks a kind of departure for Kore-eda, as it involves subjects such as child abuse, which considerably darken the palette of his typically gentle, family-centered dramas. Monster proves, though, that Kore-eda’s so-called “humanism” is fully compatible with exploitation. For if the film contains horror, it’s in the way that it uses homosexuality as a mere plot twist.

DIRECTOR: Hirokazu Koreeda;  CAST: Sakura Andô, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Mitsuki Takahata;  DISTRIBUTOR: Well Go USA;  IN THEATERS: November 22;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 6 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.