Monster takes a multilayered approach to classroom bullying
Monster is the latest film from Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda following up on 2022’s Broker and 2018’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters. Known for producing extraordinary performances from his child actors and using single family stories to represent larger societal issues, Monster is another entry into the Kore-eda canon in which nothing is ever quite what it first seems.
Saori (Shoplifters Sakura Ando) is a widowed mother to 10-year-old son Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and becomes worried after noticing changes in his behaviour at home. When Minato comes home one day and claims to have been taunted and physically beaten by his schoolteacher Mr Hori (Eita Nagayama) Saori is rightfully outraged and arranges a meeting at the school to demand justice.
That meeting is bafflingly unhelpful, with Saori facing an unrepentant Mr Hori and a near catatonic school principal who seems completely uninterested in anything after the recent death of her grandchild. Whilst the school initially refuses to admit any liability, they then come up with the response that it is actually Minato who is the bully, and he has been harassing a smaller, eccentric boy named Yori (Hinata Hiiragi.) With all parties seeming to have complete conviction in their side of the story, there’s a mystery to unravel as to what has actually happened between the boys.
Monster is told in three parts from three different perspectives, first Saori, then Hori and finally Minato himself. In a period of days that starts with a fire at a sleazy hostess bar and ends with a storm hitting the town, many of the same scenes are replayed through different characters eyes, allowing us to catch glimpses, sounds and suggestions of feeling that we may not have realised the significance of before. The structure is masterfully done. Rather than some cryptic puzzle, it feels like we are slowly being let in on the secret at the heart of the story, that the audience must slowly gain the trust of the children before we can learn the truth.
The adult segments are shot against a concrete city and drenched in grey rain whereas the two boys world is flooded with sunshine and framed by verdant green landscapes. Where Saori and Hori must each battle the crushing expectations of a society that demands honour and respect over honesty, the kids world is whimsical. A softer, gentler place sound tracked by the achingly beautiful piano score of Ryuichi Sakamoto (his last work before passing away from cancer earlier this year.)
Yet that harsher society is creeping in all the time, and we watch as cruelty in the classroom drives away the sweet innocence of childhood, the need to save face amongst one’s peers being passed on to a new generation to the detriment of that whimsical world.
Extraordinary performances from the two boys make the third act in which there are near no adults an absolute joy to watch. Whilst there are darker elements at play, Kore-eda tells a sensitive, humanist story that avoids bombastic drama in favour of intimate, believable relationships. Even when unthinkably awful things are happening, he chooses to reveal to us the inner goodness of each character, and to show that first impressions are rarely what they seem.
Kore-eda has had an impeccably strong last five years, and yet I think this may be my favourite of his work yet. Beautifully shot and scripted with an elegant structure that reveals its secrets slowly, it’s that rare film that somehow manages to build to a gut wrenchingly sad conclusion whilst still retaining a pervading feeling of hope. A quiet study on how the consequences of bullying can ripple through a whole community, this is beautiful filmmaking.
Monster is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is planned for general UK release on 23rd February 2024