Hirokazu Kore-eda's first Japanese film since 'Shoplifters' is yet another of the great director's deeply empathetic masterpieces.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 09, 2024


When a movie repeats its events through fresh eyes, answers usually follow. But as Hirokazu Kore-eda opts for the Rashomon effect in Monster, using a technique that fellow great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa deployed with one of his famous features, the director that won the Palme d'Or for 2018's Shoplifters refuses to stop asking questions. In this picture, which picked up the Queer Palm at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival — and again sees Kore-eda collaborate with Kazuko Kurosawa (The Third Murder), daughter of Akira, as its costume designer — layers keep mounting. There's no shortage of cinema that stresses how there's never merely one set of peepers to peer through, but in this masterful and moving addition to that realm, from one of the best at conveying empathy that film as a medium benefits from today, each pass in search of the full story builds a case not just for filtering the world through more than what's easy and reactive, but through acceptance and understanding. 

Kore-eda knows this: that perspectives, just like perceptions, can be misleading, blinkered and blinded. So when rumour proclaims that a new teacher frequents hostess bars, when a boy has tales of being called names by the same educator, when said man points the finger at the kid as a bully to one of his classmates instead and when the two children at the centre of the situation are friends with a cherished bond, a clearcut view is in short supply. This is the first movie since 1995's Maborosi that the filmmaker has only helmed and not also written, but Yûji Sakamoto's (In Love and Deep Water) Cannes Best Screenplay-winning script is a classic entry on the director's resume. Monster is also Kore-eda's homecoming, after making his post-Shoplifters films until now elsewhere — 2019's The Truth in France, then 2022's Broker in South Korea — and it's a stellar return.   

A blazing building starts the storytelling. Later, monsoonal rain will pour from the heavens. How emotions can go up in flames, burn bright, resemble a deluge, and wash away hurt and uncertainty is seared into Monster's patient frames, then — and with cinematographer Ryûto Kondô (also Shoplifters) doing the lensing, the feature is both alight and saturated with telling imagery. Kore-eda's knack for compassion has always floated through his visuals, in wordless moments where locked eyes say everything and in the way that he bears witness to his characters. Among his unforgettable sights here are the faces of fifth graders Minato (Sōya Kurokawa, Teasing Master Takagi-san) and Yori (Hinata Hiiragi, The Last Man: The Blind Profiler) together, sometimes muddied, sometimes exuberant, often glowing with the kind of being-seen connection that the pair can only find in each other. 

When the inferno rages at the nightclub where Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama, Migawari Mission) is reportedly a patron, Minato and his widowed mother Saori (Sakura Andô, Godzilla Minus One, and another Shoplifters alum) can spy the orange bursts from their apartment balcony. It isn't the only thing catching her attention of late; her son's behaviour has switched from gentle and shy to withdrawn, and at one point he leaps from her car as she's driving. He sports bruises and injuries. Sometimes, he doesn't return from class. He asks what type of creature — monster, even — someone would be if they were human but with a pig's brain. Saori heads to Minato's school to ascertain what's occurring, deeming Hori responsible. But all that she receives is a throwaway apology with bows, including from the distracted principal Fushimi (Yûko Tanaka, Thousand and One Nights), that only makes her angrier. 

As edited by Kore-eda himself, as usual, Monster then jumps back to Hori's take — although this isn't a film structured by different vantages in overt ways, such as point-of-view shots, but rather one that steps into the life of a new character or characters with each of its trio of runs through the narrative. Amid an unpacking of Japanese propriety's fondness for not making a fuss, and also a dive into the teacher's out-of-hours life, Hori thinks that he's being made a scapegoat. He's also convinced that Minato is picking on Yori. Then, once that vision has played through, it's time to rewind again into the latter duo's bond as fellow outsiders in their regional lakeside town. With Yori's father Kiyotaka (Shidô Nakamura, Kenshiro ni Yoroshiku) an abusive drunk who has no time for his boy's sensitivity, the two friends regularly abscond to an abandoned train tunnel in the mountainous forest. An escape and a refuge, it feels like a new world for them — and a safe place to cocoon in their chaste pre-teen relationship. 

Delicate and tender, the yearning score by Ryuichi Sakamoto — his last for a feature, apart from for concert film Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus — embodies Monster from its first moment to its last. From Kore-eda, who is incapable of not telling richly touching and heartfelt tales (see also: Still Walking, I Wish, Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister, to name just a few others), that's hardly surprising, and neither is the complexity and immediacy that shimmers through the movie's scenario and characters. He knows struggling souls, and lonely ones. He knows the intricacy that swells within everyone. He knows fractured and makeshift family dynamics just as deftly. Using reverse angles when flitting from Saori to Hori's perspective, and also to Minato and Yori's, he knows how to make plain that we are all affixed to our own views. He's also well-aware that seeing a monster is heartbreakingly simple when that's exactly what you're looking for. 

Sublime performances equally belong on the list of things that Kore-eda has an expert and exquisite grasp on. It was true in his recent foray into TV with miniseries The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House (also excellent), too: his penchant for naturalism is unparalleled in its sincerity. In Monster, Andô is a portrait of nuance even as Saori is furious and devastatingly exasperated. Nagayama turns in a candid portrayal as Hori, and Tanaka simmers with scene-stealing tension through Fushimi's formality. And from Kurokawa and Hiiragi, Kore-eda gets both calm and earnestness from a pair playing misunderstood kids with everything that they have, as well as a new round of marvellous work by child actors for his ever-magnificent filmography.   


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