SFF 2023: Hirokazu Kore-eda finds humanity in Monster’s misconstrued world of perspectives  

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has built his works on a repeated message: there is inherent goodness in all people that makes them human. Morality has been communicated through unlikely family dynamics in Shoplifters (2018) and Broker (2022). But what if human righteousness is intertwined in many separate livelihoods and cannot be revealed through one narrator? For his 2023 film Monster, Kore-eda joined hands with screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto – this is the first time Kore-eda has worked with someone else’s script. The score, using the works of musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, provides a tribute to the well-regarded composer who passed away in March this year. With a screenwriter and composer who has proved their essence in creating humane, deep and intimate connections with the audience and their works when exploring untrusted relationships, suspicions and conflicts between adults and children, Monster captures what it means to be alive. 

All three acts of Monster present the same sequence of events from different perspectives: single mother Saori Mugino, homeroom teacher Mr Hori, and Saori’s son Minato Mugino. Kore-eda’s camerawork accentuates the protagonist’s perspective and mask any contradicting beliefs of other characters. Tracking shots and close-ups articulate the protagonists’ actions and emotions. Kore-eda foregrounds one character in each act, with each different character unveiling a portion of the same sequence of events. Other interacting characters are portrayed through the visualised perspective on-screen. Saori Mugino’s suspicions of Mr Hori and the principal, Makiko Fushimi, are crafted within their doubts – the principal is isolated and robotic, and Mr Hori appears unregretful of his alleged actions.    

Sakamoto’s score comes into the foreground when playing against the horror/thriller genre portrayed in the first two acts. Kore-eda presents different character perspectives, particularly through Saori and Mr Hori, to portray a psychological thriller; slowly unveiling clues of what initially seems like a detective-like narrative. Each scene with Sakamoto is edited with almost jarring hard-cuts, embedding an eerie setting for both Saori and Mr Hori’s perspectives. Both characters develop the uncertainty and distrust the adults have for the children, and other adults in the narrative.   

However, when the third and final act puts us in Minato’s perspective, the genre deters away from a thriller. Instead, it’s a dramatic story of a child trying to understand his emotions. As the children explore their native hometown in Japan, more shots are outside, making the scenes brighter and more hopeful. While the same sequence of events is replayed, for Mugino and Mr Hori it is a potential thriller story of what is happening to the children of the school. For Minato, however, it is a story of understanding one’s feelings and belonging at an age separated from adulthood.    

Repeated motifs are also an essential storytelling convention. The opening sequence, which features the burning of a hostess bar, develops an understanding of the character’s relationships between each act. When Saori hears of Mr Hori’s attendance at the hostess bar early in the film, her opinions are fixed for almost the rest of the two-hour run-time. When Mr Hori interacts with Yori and hears rumours mongering of Minato, he assumes the worst. However, Minato’s opinions of the burning building are dull until he learns of Yori’s interest in flames, later assuming he had set it on fire. Unlike the adults, Minato remains trusted by his classmate, another gap between the open-mindedness of children and the learnt suspicions of adults.    

With same-sex marriage currently unlegalised in Japan and an ongoing dispute with LGBTQIA rights in the country’s parliament, Kore-eda portrays his understanding of equal love in the children’s eyes. The adults impede on the motif of a ‘pig’s brain,’ which influences Minato and his classmate Yori Hoshikawa. They repeatedly speak about being re-born and living a new life away from their supposed monstrous pig brain. An implicit fear to become un-human or animal-like haunts the children throughout the film. This fear of inhumanity results in Minato acting out of sorts, while Yori behaves similarly no matter who pressures him. Kore-eda argues for equal treatment of people, and that no children are born inhumanely through their love of others. Only adults learn to behave in a certain way, for this narrative loving dependent on gender, and change their values into negativity and hatred – it is through this where Kore-eda once again shows great support and respect for humans. 

While conforming to the same ensemble cast and adult-children narrative, Kore-eda’s focus on character actions and suspicions in his previous work portrays the eyes of humanity in a fear-mongering Japan. Despite not working with an original script, Kore-eda develops a narrative of good people that is only understood when giving us every character’s inner emotion. Humanity is caring for one another, and being a child is learning new experiences and growing, which should not be tainted by the inflexible beliefs of adulthood.   

Editors: Hamish McPherson and Nicole Cadelina