Hirokazu Kore-eda’s ‘Monster’ Wields Compassion Like a Sword

If the final twenty minutes don’t make you cry, the “dedicated to Ryuichi Sakamoto” end credit will.
Monster Hirokazu Kore Eda

As part of our coverage of the 42nd Vancouver International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tender domestic thriller, ‘Monster.’ Follow along with more coverage in our Vancouver International Film Festival archives.

A young boy named Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) is struggling at school. He comes home with mysterious injuries, disturbing doodles, and soiled clothes. He’s becoming increasingly withdrawn and elusive. And the disturbing insults he repeats ricochet in the worried mind of his widowed mother, Saori (Sakura Andō).

Understandably concerned, Saori starts to suspect that Minato’s well-liked teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), has something to do with what’s happening to her son. There are rumors that Hori has been seen in red-light districts, that he picks on Minato, and that his behavior borders on abuse. Minato’s mom meets with the school’s principal (Tanaka Yūko) to get answers but is stonewalled with solemn apologies. What are they hiding? Who is telling the truth? And what is going on with Minato’s secretive friendship with Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), the eccentric class punching bag?

Monster is the latest from Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese director behind Shoplifters, Broker, and the criminally under-seen Netflix series The Makanai. Gentle and empathetic, Kore-eda’s body of work focuses on unconventional domesticity, on non-traditional families, not always related by blood, who find purpose, comfort, and security in each other’s company.

Monster is no exception, echoing Kore-eda’s recurring themes of found family with a poignancy I hesitate to unpack here for fear of spoiling the film’s final destination. True, Monster’s narrative “reveal” has the subtlety of a freight train if you’re able to pick up on the clues. But there were more than enough gasps of surprise in my audience that I’d bite my tongue. Suffice it to say: Monster is a comfortable and thematically consistent addition to Kore-eda’s increasingly rich filmography. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a first-time viewer, Monster is indicative of what makes Kore-eda a name worth remembering.

Monster waltzed away with the VIFF Audience Award in the Galas & Special Presentations category, improbably beating out flashier contenders like The Zone of Interest, Priscilla, and The Boy and the Heron. Its victory comes as a pleasant surprise and hard proof that public festival audiences are less predictable than we give them credit for. TIFF could never, is what I’m saying.

Notably, Monster is the last soundtrack from Ryuichi Sakamoto, the groundbreaking composer who passed away earlier this year at the age of 71. Sakamoto leaves behind a brilliant final score as heartfelt and tender as we’ve come to expect from the man behind Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Revenant. Track “20220207” is especially bittersweet, a warped shadow of Wendy Carlos’ main title theme for The Shining, flecked with inquisitive warmth and playfulness. Understandably, the film is dedicated to his memory.

It’s easy to see why Monster took home the prize for Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes festival. Screenwriter Yûji Sakamoto channels Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto’s Rashomon, steadily unfurling a web of differing perspectives on identical incidents in an attempt to circle the truth. Of course, the more we learn, the more complicated and messy things become. And by the end, we’re left with a remarkably human string of well-meaning conjectures rather than a black-and-white scandal. It’s a delicate house of cards. And the film’s implied question (“Who is the monster in all of this?”) winds up being something of a red herring.

Monster plays with pointedly controversial themes of child testimony, parenting, and bullying while maintaining its softness and kindness. It’s an admirable balancing act that speaks volumes of Kore-eda’s strengths as a filmmaker. And that he does all of this without falling into an overblown melodramatic trap is nothing short of a miracle. The end result is one of the most nuanced portrayals of growing pains I’ve seen in a long time: a consistently compassionate tale that remains thrilling and emotionally rich because, and not in spite, of that compassion.

As of the publishing of this review, a wide release for Monster is supposedly scheduled for November 2022 (sources conflict).

Meg Shields: Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.