Content warning: Contains spoilers; mentions of suicide and assault
An early image presented in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Monster –– one that it returns to each time its obsessively brocaded timeline ruptures and resets –– is the spectacle of a burning high-rise. Crowds converge on the surrounding area to gawk and rubberneck at the computer-generated blaze as wall after wall crashes away to reveal more of the charred scaffolding beneath.
Likely meant as some kind of subtle comment on how sensational events can obscure hidden truths, the sequence instead doubles — and later triples — as a self-tattle on the shaky, skeletal authenticity that sensational movies are built upon.
The film — the first original film Kore-eda directed but had no part in writing since his 1995 breakout Maborosi — has cribbed its three-part structure from Kurosawa Akira’s highly influential Rashomon (1954), which radically and comically depicts the conflicting points of view of its central players’ experience of a singular event.
Rashomon is playful and biting, laden with strategic contradictions that shed an unflattering light on the fallibility of human memory and integrity. On the other hand, Monster attempts to flip the script, setting up a trisected quasi-mystery structure so that we assume the worst of almost everyone involved before peeling back the layers to reveal their humanity. Though it’s an admirable pursuit in theory, in practice, the film’s leering, surgical details and its sensitive subject matter of LGBTQ+ experience converge to ultimately betray screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji’s ostensibly noble project.
Fifth-grader Minato Mugino (Kurokawa Soya) lives alone with his mother Saori (Ando Sakura), who begins to suspect that her son is being subjected to violence by his teacher, Mr. Hori (Nagayama Eita). We first follow her as she seeks accountability from the school’s faculty, who are blatantly and cartoonishly evasive. We then follow Mr. Hori, and finally Minato himself.
The first two sections are perfused with confusion and frustration, while the final stretch is designed to dot every ‘i,’ cross every ‘t,’ and tie up the whole affair in a neat, optimistic package. What first plays out as a cruel, oblique tale of homophobia made deliberately systemic is transformed into a narrative web of well-meaning cyphers puppeteered by a malevolent social force. The whole film ultimately merges towards its climax of a storm flood that Sakamoto hoped could wipe the film’s slate clean.
On a related note, there is unfortunately another film that Monster has accidentally patterned itself after, and it’s Paul Haggis’ Best-Picture-winning network narrative Crash (2004), one of the most wrong-headed movies to ever grace the silver screen. Admittedly, it’s a harsh comparison, but Kore-eda’s film nonetheless echoes its forebearer’s flawed and contrived approach to addressing identity-related social issues.
In Crash, as opposed to a tangible, enforced system of evil carried out by conscious, level-headed people at all levels of society, racism is rendered as an external, random tangle of humanity’s worst instincts finding expression in helpless individuals –– and Haggis bends over backwards to showcase it as such.
Monster, a similar contortionist act, flips yet another script here. It takes the personal out entirely in favour of the “system” explanation, with a system that mostly floats around the periphery as a formless rhetorical crutch while the plot doubles back on itself in punishing detail. Sakamoto’s attempt at social commentary isn’t as insulting or harmful as Haggis’ but still comes across as hackwork.
Enough signposts of gendered social constructs have been planted throughout the film to implicate Mr. Hori — and to a lesser extent, Minato’s mother — in an abstract system of conformity and indirect homophobia, but there are few enough to still leave his — and our — conscience clear. A throwaway scene in which Minato fails to hold up his classmates in a human pyramid, prompting a joke-y, tossed-off “You call yourself a man?” from his teacher, succinctly distills the film’s dubious attitude towards Mr. Hori into the span of a couple seconds: he is at times unthinking but essentially good-hearted.
Despite having won the Queer Palm at Cannes, Monster is not interested in examining how and why young boys are tormented by their peers before they even know they’re gay, nor is it equipped to explore the reasons why this bullying has time and again been allowed to occur. Instead, it’s much more interested in using these boys as helpless, martyred canvases onto which society’s broader issues in communication can be implicitly mapped.
Its mercifully hopeful ending does not excuse how the film cruelly hints at the possibility of a child’s assault or death by suicide to its audience throughout the runtime, nor do its sparse but expressive moments of intimacy entirely detract from its plodding, incurious grasp on the complexities of human behaviour.
By the end of Monster, I was left not with the simmering, wounded hostility I’d been nursing for nearly two hours but with a dejected sense of waste: a waste of the committed cast and crew, of Sakamoto Ryuichi’s final film score — which goes a long way toward selling so many dishonest moments — and especially of its director’s talents. Kore-eda’s facility with young actors, his thoughtful curation of sound, and his intuitive grasp of image — even if occasionally a little stiff and academic — animate this classed-up after-school special in ways it doesn’t deserve.