Koreeda’s “Monster” Proves a Humanistic Take on Childhood

by Brian Hioe

Photo credit: Film Still

MONSTER, HIROKAZU KOREEDA’S latest, is the latest of the esteemed Japanese director’s humanistic takes on family. This time around, however, Koreeda zooms in on the issue of childhood bullying.

Saori, a single mother, discovers that her son Minato has begun to act strangely. Demanding answers, she finds herself in conflict with Minato’s teacher, Hori, as well as the school’s principal.

In particular, the story begins with the perspective of adults, centering on issues of responsibility and deflection of blame between students. First, the story takes Saori’s perspectives, before transitioning to that of Hori’s. From this, while Hori initially seems irresponsible in Saori’s narrative, it emerges that he is himself wracked by confusion about how to best take care of his students.

Lastly, the film transitions to the perspectives of the children themselves, telling Minato’s side of the story. This is mainly driven by his interactions with his classmate and romantic interest Hoshikawa, an eccentric outsider who is bullied by their classmates, and seems to be being abused at home.

Monster proves highly accomplished in shifting and interspersing moments of the mundane and scenes of high emotional intensity. To this extent, the movie has a light tone in some scenes, particularly those involving the children playing with each other, or Saori’s confrontations with teachers. But this transitions seamlessly to powerfully evocative scenes that get at the loneliness and isolation of the various members of the cast.

What emerges from Monster, then, is a world in which all characters are suffering from existential loneliness in some way. The suggestion is that this loneliness is pervasive in society, whether among teachers, among young students, and others. If anything can save the characters, it is the emotional bonds they form with each other, but this sometimes is too little, too late.

Monster strongly benefits from the accomplished acting of almost all members of the cast. Sakura Ando’s turn as Saori and Eita Nagayama’s performance as Michitoshi Hori are to be highly praised. Nevertheless, as is often the case with child actors, Sōya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi ultimately steal the show, as playing the two children. Indeed, the final segment of the film, detailing the viewpoints of the two children, is probably the most evocative. Koreeda manages to depict both the sense of wonder that the two children have, building out a space for themselves in an abandoned train they find in the forest, but also their isolation from the rest of the school.

Not all elements of the plot are fully developed. Yuko Tanaka brings in a wonderful performance as the school’s principal, but viewers are left wanting in that her character is not fully developed. It attests to the strength of her performance that viewers are left wanting to see more insight into her character’s background and motivations.

Lastly, Monster’s soundtrack is worth remarking on, as the last movie that the late Ryuichi Sakamoto worked on. Though Sakamoto was only able to contribute two tracks and the other tracks drew from Sakamoto’s existing catalog, the music proves a perfect fit for the movie, particularly coming to the fore in moments of high drama.

All in all, Monster is another masterpiece for Koreeda. The film is not to be missed.