Regardless of our age, the understanding we have of others is an everyday learning experience. Our friendships and relationships as they progress through different stages of our lives are filled with complexities. Hirokazu Kore-eda understands this entanglement. Throughout his films, he focuses on stories that are delicate but internally familiar to us.
Having previously won the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters in 2018, the director’s journey to the Cannes Film Festival is not a new one, but one that continues. Following the success of his arguably lighter-toned Broker last year, Kore-eda returns to Cannes with Monster, written by Yuji Sakamoto. At first glance, you may think this is Kore-eda’s attempt at a scary monster film, but do not be fooled. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of film this is; its genre feels mysterious to its surroundings. It’s a drama nevertheless, but its psychological moments are prominent throughout. Some may compare its themes and tone to his previous films such as Still Walking and Nobody Knows – yet, this is a film that leaves more questions burning than answered.
Following a blazing fire at a bar with a certain sleazy reputation, talk within the town instantly generates rumors linking the crimes to a new regular customer, Mr. Hori (Eita Negayami), a promising local school teacher. The film then begins to focus on Saori (Sakura Ando), a widower and single mother whose son Minato (Kurokawa Soyo) comes home from school and appears not to be himself. He’s distant and moody, not in a grumpy way but in a sense of consuming anxiousness.
The audience can presume this is a film about a young one’s journey through grief after we learn that Saori’s husband passed away some time ago. But the script soon alters in direction. We appear to have three different perspectives of one narrative – one told by Saori, Minato, and Mr. Hori. Minato causes a serious stir when claiming his teacher has been abusing him, both physically and mentally. A mother’s defensive mechanism comes into play and Saori questions the school’s motives. The school’s unalarming headteacher, Makiko (Tanaka Yuko), appears to be using the teachers to make light of and deny the accusations in order to keep up appearances. But yet again, Sakamoto’s script flips when Mr. Hori accuses Minato of bullying his classmate Yori (Hiragi Hinayana), a young pupil who is already the number one target of class pranks and tormented teasing.
There are a lot of concerning moments within Monster, like when Saori finds Minato in the dark woods, alone but unhurt, or when he unexpectedly decides to take a pair of scissors and cut his hair. As an audience, we begin to question, who is the monster? Is it Mr. Hori? Is the creature our own insecurities? Is the monster really us navigating human life? Kore-eda, despite perhaps the film’s muddy timeline of events, explores how a secret can create a monster in our own mental state.
Kore-eda, despite perhaps the film’s muddy timeline of events, explores how a secret can create a monster in our own mental state.
Monster, on a very slight glance, follows suit on last year’s Cannes feature Close, a tale between two boys in the same class navigating and evaluating their friendship whilst their peers look on with a judgemental eye. Monster is perhaps less obviously implied in what exactly Minato and Yori’s friendship is, but it’s explicitly clearer that whatever it is makes Minato uncomfortable. Kore-eda does a realistically great job of providing audiences with true representation of struggle and navigation. How do we figure out what we want? Is this how it’s supposed to feel? The director is using this friendship to show us that both characters are aware of their feelings, but as teenagers it’s about learning and growing into what feels right. There is no sad ending, but a realization on Minato’s end of what makes him happy without the societal glare deciding his journey.
Monster is a poetic and sensual film about the exploration of one’s natural feelings growing up, which can be tricky and often frustrating in all of its complex parts. While its timeline can be quite confusing at some points, this is a film that is visually stunning in all of its demeanor. We all have monsters, but this is a feature that explores its emotional intrusiveness.