The latest creation by Japan’s most celebrated filmmaker from the past 10 years is teeming with water, fire, fleeting emotions, ambiguous plots devices and nice people. Despite its title, no character is entirely evil in this tale of grief, friendship and dysfunctional childhood. Minato (Kurokawa Soya) is a fifth-grader experiencing abuse at school, seemingly from the hands of his teacher Mr Hori (Nagayama Eita). His single mother Saori (Ando Sakura) locks horns with the school principal (Tanaka Yuko) as she demands that the aggressor is punished. She threatens the institution with legal action. Meanwhile, the principal is grappling with a demon of her own: her husband accidentally killed their grandchild by running their car over the child. But nothing is what it seems at first, with nearly every character concealing at least one dark secret.
Mother and son watch from their balcony as a brothel (euphemistically called a “hostess bar”) brightens up the urban landscape at night, while a horde of firefighters attempt to control the arson. This fire will be played out several times throughout the film, each time bringing a different type of redemption. A dead animal also gets burned, providing viewers yet another type of absolution. Water offers respite. It rains heavily during some of the films most decisive moments, such as when Minato and his school friend Yori (Hiiragi Hinata) – who also comes from dysfunctional, single-parent household – play in an abandoned bus hidden inside the dense woodlands.
Mr Hori told Minato that he swapped brains with a pig, a trope repeated ad infinitum in the film (in a movie fond of reoccurrences). His colleagues constantly taunt him. Minato is the subject of both physical and psychological abuse. But has Mr Hori really hit his vulnerable pupil in the nose and twisted his arm? Has he terrified the boy so much that he fell down the stairs, in an accident that could have cost his life? In Koreeda’s world, there are no real villains, but instead deeply fallible people seeking remission.
While Koreeda deserves credit for creating another palpably humanistic film, and for once again eliciting superb child performances, Monster isn’t a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The confusing script involves too many characters that are neither well balanced nor serve a real purpose.The narrative is constantly shapeshifting aimlessly. This highly ambitious movie about broken families, stolen childhood and finding solace in most most unlikely places (both literally and figuratively) goes around in circles too many times for about 125 minutes, leaving audiences guessing the real causes of Minato’s suffering. The mother’s character virtually disappears a third into the film without explanation, while the secondary Yori acquires an unexpected dimension as his friendship with Minato proves ambiguous in more ways than one (there is even the suggestion of homosexual affection).
The final resolution is awkward and unsatisfactory. Red herrings (an attempted suicide from a moving vehicle), redundant symbolisms (water, fire, a dead cat), clunky twists and rewinds (I can’t reveal those without spoiling the plot), and loose ends (what happened to Minato’s father?) make the story disjointed and overblown, intoxicated by its own metaphorical and philosophical aspirations.
I write this review with a broken heart. Koreeda’s human touch is vital to modern-day Japanese cinema, an industry more used to animation or the mainstream, easily digestible incursions of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. But this isn’t the first time I watched a Koreeda film with a befuddling script. In 2019, I attended the premiere of The Truth in Venice, and disliked the film so much that I refused to put my review to pen, and instead asked one of DMovies‘s talented journalists (who liked the film a lot more than I did) to do so. Let’s hope that the 60-year-old Japanese director will soon return to the splendid form we saw in After the Storm (2016) and Shoplifters.
The soundtrack was composed by Ryuichi Sakamato, to whom the film is also dedicated. The iconic Japanese musician and actor passed away less than two months ago at the age of 71.
Monster premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was origianlly written. The director won the Festival’s top prize five years earlier with Shoplifters. The UK premiere takes place in October at the BFI London Film Festival.