Credit: Well Go USA/NEOPA, Fictive
by Theo Rollason Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Unplugging the Empathy Machine: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Monster & Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist

April 30, 2024

**The following discusses the endings of Monster and Evil Does Not Exist.

“Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” Roger Ebert once famously remarked, providing the laziest way to start hundreds of articles like this one. “The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.” Though there’s certainly something to cinema as a machine especially adept at manipulating our emotional states, Ebert’s neat phrase doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny. Why empathy? Why not hatred? And empathy for whom, deployed to what ends? Couldn’t Ebert’s quote be applied just as easily to The Birth of a Nation as any recent film riding the nicecore wave?

Major reservations aside, I’ll admit there’s still something compelling about the empathy machine as Ebert imagines it. Film can allow us to connect with perspectives that aren’t our own, and while I remain unconvinced that this can uncomplicatedly bring about our moral betterment, it can at least yield thought-provoking outcomes. Looking to contemporary cinema, sticking with Ebert’s idea provides a chance to examine the work of two of the most consistently empathetic working filmmakers: Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has built a reputation for turning a compassionate eye toward society’s marginalized. From the souls tasked with identifying their single happiest memory in his breakthrough After Life through to the makeshift family of his Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, Kore-eda’s oeuvre exemplifies Ebert’s empathy machine. His characters are never perfect — and might even make terrible choices — but they are always resolutely human. Monster, his latest, is the first since Maborosi not to be written by Kore-eda himself, and in its opening stages appears to signal a sharp left turn for the filmmaker — but slowly emerges as his most compassionate film yet.

Like Kore-Eda, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s films are the best kind of empathy machines: constantly tripping up expectations, redirecting sympathies, complicating our understanding of with whom we think the power lies, all the while demanding that we take seriously the emotional lives of all of his characters. In Review Online’s own M.G. Mailloux perfectly elucidates the appeal of his 2021 film Drive My Car: “It’s rare to encounter a film so committed to a belief in others, recognizing empathy as a transformative spiritual force, an embrace of the unknown that can shape our understanding of broader existence.” I’m not sure that could be said of Hamaguchi’s latest, Evil Does Not Exist, which in adopting and subverting a similar narrative structure to Monster seems to be probing the political limits of the empathy machine view of cinema.

Monster’s first part revolves around single mother Saori (Sakura Andō), whose young son Minato is exhibiting a variety of concerning behaviors. Things start to make sense as accusations surface of a bullying teacher who has physically hurt Minato and told him he has a “pig brain.” Sure enough, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama) appears socially inept and downright creepy when Saori finally pins him down for a meeting, offering insincere apologies and sexist criticisms of her parenting. Adding to the disquiet is the protection extended to Hori by the school’s principal (Yūko Tanaka), a robotic woman unnervingly reliant on rehearsed soundbites (“we accept your opinion with seriousness”). An uneasy atmosphere hangs over this first act, which gives the sense it could veer off into the realms of true crime or horror at any moment.

It’s only when the film winds back to its beginning — and we witness the same events from the teacher’s point of view — that we start to catch onto what Kore-eda is really doing. Monster’s second part concerns Mr. Hori’s earnest worry for another boy, Yori, who he believes is being bullied by Minato. After Yori inexplicably defends Minato, Hori is forced to accept responsibility and eventually resigns to protect the school’s reputation. It’s only later, ostracized and suicidal, that he chances upon a clue that reveals the truth about the boys’ relationship: that Minato and Yori were in love. We get one final run-through of the story, this time from Minato’s perspective as he attempts to navigate a seemingly impossible situation: how to protect Yori from his bullying classmates without putting himself at the mercy of their homophobia?

Credit: Well Go USA

“Who is the monster?” goes the sing-song refrain of a game the boys play. By the film’s end, it’s obvious that the title is an ironic bit of misdirection: there are no monsters to be found here. Hori’s redemption is merely a matter of shifting perspective; even the headmistress emerges as a character burdened by her own trauma. Each seemingly perplexing action is explained by something else, and apparently cruel words are traced back to their origins: Hori’s disparaging comment about single mothers is thoughtlessly parroted from a comment made by his girlfriend; Minato’s fears of brain abnormality come from Yori’s alcoholic, violently homophobic father. Monster’s narrative structure encourages us to imagine a version of the film that goes on and on, each restart offering new insight. In such a boundlessly empathetic film, you can even imagine the alcoholic father redeemed — what are his demons? Aren’t the school bullies also constrained by the toxic masculinity they unleash upon Yori?

Cinema abounds with easy tales of clear-cut good and evil; this is just as true of the arthouse as it is the mainstream. Not so in Kore-eda’s films — and Monster, which sees the filmmaker collaborating with writer Yûji Sakamoto for the first time, is no different. Like its characters, we find ourselves looking for monsters, but all we find are flawed human beings doing their best. My immediate impression of the film is summed up by a Vanity Fair headline: “There’s Beautiful Nuance in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Monster.”

It was only with some distance from the film that I began to wonder whether a film can be too nuanced for its own good — or, rather, for ours. Monster ends in the midst of a dramatic rainstorm, with Minato and Yori making their way to their secret hideout in the woods, a dilapidated railcar. Mud buries the train; Saori and Mr. Hori seem to arrive too late. But in the very last scene, the boys emerge reborn from the mud, and run joyously through a bright landscape. It’s an ambiguous ending, both hopeful and devastating — is there space for these boys’ love in this world? And if there isn’t, how can we be better next time?

The film makes its plea for more tolerance, communication, kindness — all admirable ideals — and there’s a gesture toward systematic critique both in the film’s depiction of a school that cares more about its reputation than the safety of its staff or students and in its thankless portrayal of a press eager to feed mob mentality. But Monster is also keen to stress that everyone has their own motivations, that each character’s circumstance explains behavior that is, to a large extent, merely a reaction to factors beyond their control. Put another way, the film presents us with a vision of a broken society ultimately composed of blameless individuals. Where does this leave us?

In Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist, widower Takumi (Hitoshi Omika) lives a peaceful rural life, as we see it, of chopping wood, fetching water, and forgetting to pick up his young daughter Hana (Ryo Nishikawa) from school. This idyll is shattered by the arrival of corporate emissaries from Tokyo, sent to communicate an ill-considered plan to build a glamping site in the village. The scene which follows — in which the locals see through the buzzword bullshit of the talent agents, whose plans would threaten their carefully balanced ecosystem — is a masterclass of patient, political filmmaking, and likely cathartic for anyone who’s had to sit through one of these sham meetings (“your valuable input will be considered”).

In another movie, any shot of the utterly despondent company man at the end of this scene would be its punchline. But Hamaguchi is too interesting a screenwriter for that, and it’s not long before we find ourselves unexpectedly following Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) back to their Tokyo office. The empathy machine kicks into gear. These two-dimensional embodiments of corporate greed become people with rich inner lives: they tease each other about dating apps, and complain about a job that’s left them disenchanted. Ordered back to town by their profit-hungry boss to offer Takumi the job of glamping site caretaker as a duplicitous gesture of goodwill, Takahashi and Mayuzumi instead seek earnest connection with the locals; Takahashi goes further, deciding he will take the caretaker role for himself. And then, just as it seems we’re going to end up in Local Hero territory — in the kind of film where the company man finds himself charmed by the inhabitants of the locale he was sent to destroy, and makes his plea for a more benevolent capitalism — we get the ending.

Credit: NEOPA, Fictive

It’s worth pausing here to consider how similar these films are structurally. The first parts of Monster and Evil Does Not Exist set up a parent-child relationship (haunted by the death of a partner) and introduce us to the villains of the piece, which take the form of specific individuals and of abstracted bureaucracy. Both have a pivotal early scene in which the protagonist goes up against forces of power and is met with infuriating platitudes. The films’ respective second parts reconfigure our sympathies, humanizing those whom we thought were monsters and questioning our willingness to assign evil. And the third parts concern a missing child, culminating in ambiguous endings on which hinge the possibility of social critique — and which might just be fantasies.

The nature of these endings, however, is markedly different. In Evil Does Not Exist, Hana vanishes on the walk home from school. The ensuing search goes deep into the night. Eventually, Takumi and Takahashi approach a clearing, where Hana stands frozen ahead of a shot deer; a shot deer, Takumi has already informed us, will attack a person. Takahashi lunges forward to help, but Takumi tackles him to the ground, taking him in a violent chokehold. Hana lies on the ground motionless, blood running from her nose. The deer is gone. Night becomes day, and then night again. Someone staggers through the forest, breathing heavily. The fate of these characters is left unresolved. Is what we’re seeing a flashback, a vision, or something else? Is Hana dead, and might she have been for some time? Does Takumi kill Takahashi?

Hamaguchi’s ending shocks — though just as troublingly, it also makes sense. Earlier in the film, a series of lengthy takes show Takumi sawing and chopping wood; the camera pans to a large woodpile that leaves us to imagine the time and labor that’s gone into its creation. When the Tokyo boss assumes that Takumi will take the caretaker job because he “probably has time to spare,” it makes you want to scream. (Interestingly, Hamaguchi does not choose to humanize the masterminds of the glamping project, who become literally two-dimensional: one appears only via video call, and the other is comically doubled by a painting.)

Takahashi, too, provides a valuable glimpse into the mind of the rural gentrifier. After cosplaying as Takumi for a single day — chopping wood, gathering water, collecting Hana — he decides he wants Takumi’s life for his own. There’s nothing to suggest his desire isn’t sincere, though it still stinks of urban entitlement, the subtext being that he’s in a financial position to opt out whenever he chooses. Takahashi can’t see the inherent parasitism of the glamping site venture itself, but we know how these things go — that a greedy company polluting the drinking water is just the beginning.

As with Monster, the title can’t be taken at face value. Evil does exist — it is, bluntly, capitalism, a system that places profit before people, that encourages the domination of nature and a disregard for community. It’s also human violence. In those last scenes Hana’s fate — whatever it may be — unleashes in Takumi a fury he directs at Takahashi, who represents an existential threat to his way of life. It’s an act both brutal and justified, and poses a striking question for an age of environmental catastrophe: what response is too far to protect your very existence?

Hamaguchi doesn’t provide us with any easy answers. But Evil Does Not Exist at least complicates the idea that empathy precludes human monstrosity, suggesting the political limits of the empathy machine view of cinema. Kindness and compassion may not be enough to challenge the ills of capitalism. Uncomfortably, the film might even insist on the existence of human evil as a necessary condition of political critique in the cinema — and as such can be read as an indirect critique not only of Kore-eda’s film, but of the widely perceived humanism of Hamaguchi’s own oeuvre to date.