Japanese coming-of-age drama ‘Monster’ is one of the year’s best

REVIEW: Filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has crafted a “Rashomon”-like fable about the secret lives of children

Nobody does poignant, down-to-earth dramas as masterfully as Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda. His naturalistic filmmaking and raw storytelling wring strong emotions while never veering into saccharine melodrama. His latest drama, Monster, which won this year’s Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival, ventures into new territory for the filmmaker: for the first time in his 25-year career, he’s directing a tale he didn’t pen. Nevertheless, this uniquely structured queer coming-of-age drama might be his richest flick since Shoplifters

Set in a small Japanese town where rumours spread like wildfires––or the literal fire at a brothel that opens the picture––Saori Mugino (Sakura Andō) notices her preteen son Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) has been acting peculiarly. Her perplexity arises once he asks her, “If you switch a pig’s brain with a human brain, is it still human or pig?” Saori first suspects her son is grieving his late father. But after Minato jumps out of out of his mother’s moving car–– a “Lady Bird,” if you will––finding him in a ravine in the dead of night, Saori begins to think it has something to do with Minato’s teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama). She learns that Hori has been hitting Minato at school and immediately goes to confront him, the school board and the insensitive principal Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka).

Hori’s perspective, however, provides an entirely different story, for he often catches Minato––at the worst opportune times––at the centre of incidents involving him and several boys bullying a sweet-natured kid named Yori (Hinata Hiiragi). But a violent confrontation between Hori and Minato results in the teacher becoming a social pariah in the town. 

After presenting us with Hori’s and Saori’s points of view, the film eventually settles on Minato’s sole perspective, revealing the truth behind Minato and Yori’s relationship, something the grown-ups could never have foreseen.

Kore-eda approaches the story in the same true-to-life fashion as his prior works like Broker and Shoplifters. In recounting Minato’s disturbing behaviour in three separate threads, Kor-eda masterfully preserves a complex mystery that keeps the audience as much in the dark as the film’s adult characters. With each act told from a new perspective, Kore-eda goes the extra mile to present the same events from different angles, giving his viewers better context for the drama. Though much credit for this beautifully compelling slice-of-life saga goes to screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto (winning best screenplay at Cannes), Kore-ed’s editing slowly, strategically unveils the characters’ secrets. The exquisite score by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto (Call Me By Your Name, After Yang) elevates the emotional beats.

Monster’s structure is akin to Rashomon––Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, where an ensemble of characters recollect their memories of a tumultuous event, told from each of their distinctive perspectives. The technique is often deployed in crime-related narratives: Knives Out or Hoodwinked are clever flicks that employ the Rashomon effect with wit.

 

In Monster, the first two acts, told from the adults’ perspective, examine the misconceptions that arise from speculation. In the compelling second act, the slightest rumour or observed detail makes the teacher’s life a living hell. These acts have a distinctive fable-like feel as you sympathize with each character while they push to unearth the truth. 

As the film gently peels back layers of understanding, Sakamoto conveys an astonishing, intimate tale about the pressures of childhood and the secrets kids harbour from each other or their elders. 

The third act, told from Minato’s perspective, follows his deepening relationship with schoolmate Yori. The two share a strong, tender friendship, but only outside the school grounds. Minato sets boundaries with Yori, saying, “We’re friends, but don’t talk to me when we’re at school.” Yori is often bullied in his classroom by mean-spirited boys for his non-masculine energy, and Minato does nothing to help. As they say, evil flourishes when good men do nothing, and Minato does nothing. To say more about the plot’s queer-centric core would spoil the film’s poetic beauty.

Kore-eda’s Monster is an astonishing, intimate tale; its dense plotting and subtle foreshadowing keep you in suspense until the shattering finale. It’s a profoundly poetic tale and one of the year’s best dramas. 

Monster opened theatrically in NYC on Nov. 22, coming to L.A. on Dec. 1; it opens in the U.K. February 2024; other dates to be announced.

Rendy Jones is a film and television journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. They are the owner of self-published outlet Rendy Reviews, a member of the Critics Choice Association, and a part time stand up comedian.

Read More About:
Culture, TV & Film, Asia, Youth

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