Monster, Kore-eda Hirokazu

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s ‘Monster’ Falls Short of Its Literary Ambitions 

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Monster has striking moments, but casually skips over details, reducing its characters to incomplete fragments.

Kore-eda Hirokazu
Picturehouse Entertainment
15 March 2024 (UK | IE)

“What actually happened doesn’t matter,” says Fushimi Makiko (Tanaka Yuko), the school headteacher in Monster, the latest film from celebrated Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu. It’s a disturbing moment because, at this point in the film, the audience recognises the importance of understanding what has happened. Instead, supposedly responsible adults toss aside their integrity and, out of fear, make ill-advised, even reckless decisions that unfairly victimise an innocent person.

Kore-eda’s Monster is a confronting film that shows the individual’s powerlessness within the bureaucratic system and how an accusation is like wildfire, quickly burning down a person’s life. Fushimi’s words ripple throughout the film, which seems to be about the importance yet inconvenience of truth.

When fifth grader Minato (Kurokawa Soya) begins acting strangely, his mother Saori (Ando Sakura) becomes concerned. Learning that his teacher, Hori Michitoshi (Nagayama Eita), is somehow responsible, she seeks answers. The headmistress, who is grieving the recent death of her grandchild, barely speaks. Faculty are reluctant to discuss the accusation, despite Saori’s pleas to understand what happened between her son and Mr. Hori. Told across three chapters, Monster follows the mother, the teacher, Minato, and his schoolmate, Yori (Hiiragi Hinata), to reveal a complicated web of truth.

It’s unsettling when children tell a lie or are cruel. Perhaps it’s an affront to our unconscious bias towards the presumed innocence of youth. It’s an act of self-deception, a naïve lie that wants to believe something untrue. In her 1923 children’s novel Emily of New Moon, Canadian author L.M. Montgomery scathingly writes, “Children can be the most cruel creatures alive. They have the herd instinct of prejudice against any outsider, and they are merciless in its indulgence.” 

Yori’s classmates see him as being different. They push him around, knock him to the ground, play pranks on him, and call him “alien”. He’s the unfortunate outsider, and his classmates are merciless. They identify his weakness and empower themselves through their cruelty. They don’t fully comprehend what their words and actions mean, but this doesn’t absolve them of their guilt.  

Monster viscerally depicts the isolating horror of school that destroys one’s confidence and self-worth. Yet Kore-eda and screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji celebrate the joyful innocence of youth, the abundance of creativity, imagination, and connection. In their hands, Monster’s story is constructed around the image of the sun disappearing and reappearing from behind dark clouds. 

There’s a pleasure in watching these cyclical loops that reveal a new perspective on the events the characters are caught up in. As the audience’s understanding expands, their feelings about the characters change. Saori’s story emotionally encourages the audience to sympathise with Minato.

It’s during the second version of events, however, that the audience realizes they’ve been hasty in taking sides and judging the characters, especially Hori, who is an adult version of Yori. The other teachers treat their colleague with condescension, observing his shifty eyes. They see him as a burden, while his girlfriend appears to toy with him like a cat plays with a mouse. 

Monster reminds its audience about the importance of context and not being guided by impulsive whims. It does this by manipulating our emotional sensibilities before accessing our critical minds. Yori and Hori depict the cynical reality that we never leave school behind. As adults, the spaces of the classroom and playground change to professional and social settings, but they’re still governed by the herd instinct that turns those identified as being “different” into victims.

Monster’s story has obvious parallels to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), in which a priest, a woodcutter, and a peasant recount their version of the trial of a bandit. It also parallels Thomas Vinterverg‘s The Hunt (2012), in which a young girl at a kindergarten school is led into incriminating a teacher for inappropriate conduct. The context is different, but the premise of Monster and The Hunt is about the consequences of an accusation and, in different ways, how adults empower the accusation by their unwillingness to discuss it and appropriately investigate. 

A more insidious naïveté is present in Vinterberg’s film, whereas the teachers in Monster are motivated by fear. They’re afraid they and the school will be in trouble if the accusations are investigated. At every step, their motivation is avoidance and placating Saori and any outside scrutiny. This positions Hori as a sacrificial lamb in which truth is an inconvenience. Fushimi doesn’t doubt Hori’s innocence, but she explains to him that what happened is not important. 

Fushimi delivers this statement with a cold detachment, a lack of sympathy that makes one think she’s a ghost walking among the living. In contrast, her colleagues are livelier, but they, too, seem detached from reality when first confronted by Minato’s mother. Ironically, in this earlier scene, Saori asks them, “I don’t see any life in any of your eyes. Am I talking to human beings?” Saori’s words describe an existential crisis in which the characters compromise their moral integrity because of their narcissistic indifference. Furthermore, their fear is an act of fatal self-harm to their humanity. However, Kore-eda and Sakamoto challenge this later when Fushimi displays her compassion and wisdom, suggesting that life is a struggle to hold onto our humanity through our words and actions. 

Kore-eda and screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji appear to refuse to take a moral stance in Monster. They defer to the audience to recognise and respond to this treatment of truth as an inconvenience, which devalues its importance. The story’s structure, however, resembles a quiet and condemning voice toward the teachers’ self-interest as the context of the events is revealed. Kore-eda and Sakamoto find a way to quietly slip inside Monster‘s story to express their moral indignation, but it’s as if they weren’t there. It exemplifies the attentive subtle touches that make Monster shine despite its shortcomings.

Monster struggles to thoroughly explore the ensemble of rich and captivating characters, all of whom could be the lead characters in the film. The audience is left yearning for a deeper understanding, particularly about Hori’s past, who, like Minato, was raised by a single mother. Minato’s relationship with his deceased father presents character details, themes, and ideas that are brushed over.

Meanwhile, Fushimi, who harbors a secret, should be the driving force of the film, the Japanese equivalent of strong Argentinian female-led dramas and thrillers such as Lucrecia Martel’sThe Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, 2008) and Francisco Márquez’s, A Common Crime (Un crimen común, 2020). Sadly, by merging Fushimi and the other characters into a single story, Kore-eda and Sakamoto reduce them to incomplete fragments.

Monster is a literary story appropriated by cinema. It’s an ambitious undertaking but cannot reach the depth required to make it wholly successful. There are striking moments, but it can seem ordinary as it casually skips over details. Kore-eda and Sakamoto appear driven to tell an emotional story instead of a rich character and thematic drama, repressing the film’s voice, which has more to say.

Monster was released in the UK and Ireland’s cinemas on 15 March 2024.