Review: With “Monster”, Hirokazu Kore-eda Redeems Himself By Exploring Tumultuous Youth and Misunderstandings

In "Monster," Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to his native Japan in collaboration with screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto and late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

By , 5 Jul 23 02:56 GMT
Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.

Fans of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda already know that his works often focus on family. Year after year, the Japanese master has produced humane and often heart-wrenching tales that explore the complexity and meaning of family. Korea-eda’s latest work Monster still does that—but it also offers a coming-of-age exploration of human fragility and the turmoil of youth.

Monster begins with a building burning to the ground, while a mother and son Saori (Sakura Ando) and Minato (Soya Kurokawa) watch from a distance. Following the incident, Minato starts behaving strangely—suddenly cutting his hair, coming home from school with just one shoe, and carrying a water bottle filled with broken glass. Minato tells Saori that his teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama) is the reason for these unusual acts. This is when the film title comes into play: is Mr. Hori a monster pulling Minato’s strings, or is there another monster at large?

The answer to that question is not simple. In fact, Kore-eda poses more questions than answers. But that’s also where he excels at showing, not telling. Monster unfolds in a Kafkaesque way, with almost spine-chilling mystery and creepiness. In one scene, Saori discovers Minato in an abandoned tunnel late at night, covered in mud. Such bizarre behavior extends to the film’s adults when Minato’s principal (Akihiro Tsunoda) merely reads a “scripted” apology to Saori instead of anything sounding human. Kore-eda creates an atmosphere of wonder, almost dream-like, with a monster looming among us—or rather, within us.

A Tricky Storytelling Choice

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd

For some, Monster can feel convoluted in a manner similar to Kore-eda’s ambitious 2022 film Broker. Its repetition may become exhausting, especially when its characters repeatedly misinterpret each other. Just as you begin to absorb the second part of the story, the third unfolds, leaving you to wonder if there’ll be a fourth or fifth. The shape-shifting structure swirls in our minds, and Kore-eda is not a director who kindly offers answers—often, he leaves that part to viewers.

While repetitive, non-linear storytelling has its drawbacks, it’s necessary in Monster to show how easily we can misinterpret or overlook something crucial due to prejudice, values, and selfishness. Kore-eda excels in concealing information, teasing and leaving audiences to guess what’s at play. For instance, Kore-eda revisits the opening scene of a burning building three times, offering three different perspectives on what may have occurred. This pattern repeats in other scenes, accumulating tension towards a captivating twist at the end.

It’s also worth noting the film also marks the first time since 1995’s Maborosi that Kore-eda didn’t write his own screenplay. Renowned TV screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto took the helm for Monster, winning the Best Screenplay award at 2023’s 76th Cannes Film Festival. Apparently the jury agreed that the film’s complex three-part structure enriches its world and characters, providing new perspectives on scenes that initially seemed insignificant but now hold greater significance.

The Monster in All of Us

Courtesy of Toho Co., Ltd.

Calling the film “Monster” is a red herring. Viewers might believe it features an actual monster —a large, physical one. Indeed, Minato even seems to search for a physical monster in certain scenes. However, this might be Kore-eda’s intention; thanks in part to its complex narrative, the film is a masterclass in misdirection. Just as you think Monster will focus on school bullying and the pains of single motherhood, it shifts in a different direction and explores the fragility of youth.

While Monster almost strays into Broker’s degree of convolution, Kore-eda keeps the film from going too far by deploying the cast and soundtrack. Monster’s cast—especially its younger members—keep a consistently balanced, eerily melancholic tone that survives across the film’s twists. While Soya Kurokawa’s Minato seems lonely and aloof, Kore-eda throws in Hinata Hiiragi as Yori, a classmate that acts as a more optimistic foil and ends up playing an important role in the plot; the two child actors have great chemistry in creating their own world away from the messiness of adults. Sakura Ando, who plays Saori and also starred in Kore-eda’s 2018 “Shoplifters”, helps ground that adult world Minato and Hinata must contend with. A score from the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is the icing on top, adding additional poignancy behind every scene.

In the end, Monster’s acting contributes to its central message: the monster is not a person; it’s the monstrosity of mutual misunderstanding. With Monster, Kore-eda further demonstrates his humanistic touch, and provides a noteworthy redemption from his previous messier works.

• • •

Monster (Japanese: 怪物)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. First released on 17 May 2023 at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Running time 2hr 5 mins. Starring Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi, Yuko Tanaka.

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