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By Daniel Lammin
5th May 2024

One of the great joys of seeing films in a film festival is when you sit yourself down in your seat for a session, and realise you know basically nothing about the film you're about to watch. With so many ways for film promotion to infiltrate our social media or news feeds, it feels like a rare treat. This was the situation I found myself in with 'Monster' at the Brisbane International Film Festival, the latest film from award-winning Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu, whose films include the breathtaking 2018 Palme d'Or winner 'Shoplifters'. I'd put 'Monster' on my schedule purely because of Kore-eda's reputation, but apart from knowing that it centred on two young boys, I had no idea what it was about. I had even assumed, because of the title, it would a sci-fi/horror film. Of all the films I saw at BIFF, 'Monster' may have been the most thrilling emotional ride. I began with a blank page, and within the first 20 minutes, what began to fill that page was something dark and foreboding. By the end, those dark sketches burst with colour, and I found myself curled in my seat, sobbing with joy.

Following a three-act structure reminiscent of Kurosawa's 1950 masterpiece 'Rashomon', 'Monster' focuses on an incident at a Japanese elementary school where a single mother Saori (Sakura Andô, 'Shoplifters') becomes concerned for the welfare of her teenage son Minato (Soya Kurokawa). He has begun to act in strange ways, losing his shoes or running away to hide, and she becomes convinced that her son is being targeted for abuse by his teacher, Mr Hiro (Eita Nagayama). However, with each act of the film, we shift perspective to first Mr Hiro and then to Minato himself, revealing the situation to be far more complex and delicate than any of the adults suspect, centred around Minato's interactions with another male student, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi).

What is so remarkable about 'Monster' is the ease with which Kore-eda navigates these shifts in perspective, essentially creating three smaller films with three distinct tones and tensions without the macro-film ever feeling disjointed or disconnected. Where we are left at the end of 'Monster' is very different emotionally from where we began, the ever-growing knot of tension building as we watch Saori battle the school for the sake of her son, diving into confusion and chaos with Mr Hiro, and then blossoming into something full, rapturous and overwhelming. The thematic ideas at its heart are rich and considerable, whether that be the tension in the school system between student care and institutional reputation, the complex breakdown of trust between parents and teachers from both sides of the fence, and ultimately the inability for adults to truly access the inner life of young people, through assumption, unwillingness or, in the case of Minato, shame and self-protection. That the film is able to not only balance these all at once, but move from one concern to the next with such ease and elegance, is part of its magic.


Kore-eda and screenwriter Yûri Sakamoto reveal information in the manner of a mystery, building the inner world of the film as Saori, Mr Hiro and ultimately we put all the puzzle pieces together. In many ways, this makes the ultimate reveal in the final act all the more powerful, as each shift in perspective makes the incongruities around Minato and Yori make more sense. The film is careful never to judge the adult characters for their misconceptions and is careful to make sure we don't either. The three-act structure places us firmly in their perspective, and so just as they are led to these conclusions, so are we, and the reveal of the truth is just as impactful for us as it is for them. 'Monster' is a masterclass in the power of Point of View as a storytelling tool, and it's all the more to its credit that, rather than leading us to a place of darkness akin to a film like Thomas Vinterberg's 'The Hunt' (2012), where misunderstandings collapse into an overwhelming abyss, that the converging of these points of view brings us to a place of immense humanity. At first, 'Monster' feels like a much sharper, crueller film than 'Shoplifters', Kore-eda jettisoning his careful poetry on our capacity to connect and care for one another for an unrelenting emotional brutality, but so delicately as to barely be noticed, his generous understanding of the human spirit ultimately takes centre stage.

That delicacy radiates through the central performances. As expected, Sakura Andô balances enormous frailty and strength as Saori, particularly in the scenes where she has to face the brick wall of the school's administration, refusing to acknowledge that any sort of abuse may have taken place. These are the key scenes of the first act, Kore-eda making Saori feel isolated and small by comparison to the staff, and Andô combatting their cold disregard with a boiling, heartbreaking rage. Your empathy immediately goes out to her, allowing us to take root in (what we think is) the emotional core of the film. When the baton is passed to Eita Nagayama as Mr Hiro, he has the seemingly impossible task of wrestling our sympathies over to him, but he's able to do so by taking a very different tact from Andô, finding him caught in a whirlwind pulling him in all different directions while making his concern and ultimately his empathy for Minato and Yori abundantly clear to us.

What is so remarkable about 'Monster' is the ease with which Kore-eda navigates these shifts in perspective, essentially creating three smaller films with three distinct tones and tensions without the macro-film ever feeling disjointed or disconnected.

As tremendous as Andô and Nagayama are, it's Soya Kurokawa and Hinata Hiiragi as Minato and Yori who ultimately steal the film. It's always hard to tell with young performers whether what we are seeing is a sign of their innate talent or a performance shaped by the director through direction or editing, but I've always felt it's undeniable when you can feel something indescribable emanating from a young actor's performance. Despite the devastating subtext we discover with Yori, Hiiragi always has a lightness of touch, an open heart, an uninhibited sense of self that both asserts who Yori is and protects him from the disregard of the world around him. Korokawa has an immense mountain to climb with the arc we follow with Minato, from what we perceive as victim to abuser to something far more profound, and at no point does his performance lack sincerity. There's so much care a delicacy in both their performances, and even if credit for this should be shared with Kore-eda, the fact both these young actors are able to understand and execute his direction is a credit to their talent.

One other artist involved in 'Monster' that must be noted is the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the finest film composers. His score for 'Monster' was his last work for film before he passed away in 2023, and the film would simply not have worked without his compassionate, breathtaking score. It provides the emotional glue that both holds the three sections of the film together and helps navigate us between them. Much like the way in which Kore-eda deftly shifts the tone and texture of the film over its two hours, Sakamoto's score guides us from a place of claustrophobic hopelessness to breathtaking emotional release. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect final statement from the great composer.

'Monster' is an astonishing magic trick of a film, overwhelming in its compassion. It's quietly magnificent, almost miraculous, pain blossoming into joy, lies made in fear cracking open to reveal hidden, protected, precious truths. This has been a banner 12 months for work from Japan, 'Monster' sitting comfortably next to Wim Wenders' transcendent 'Perfect Days' and Hayao Miyazaki's earth-shattering 'The Boy and the Heron', and in each case, we tap into the capacity of the human spirit to search and find and connect with those around us. This is such a beautiful, heartbreaking, soulful film, exactly the kind we would expect from a director of Kore-eda Hirokazu's stature.

RELEASE DATE: 09/05/2024
RUN TIME: 02h 07m
CAST: Sakura Andô
Eita Nagayama
Soya Kurokawa
Hinata Hiiragi
Mitsuki Takahata
Shidô Nakamura
Yûko Tanaka
DIRECTOR: Kore-Eda Hirokazu
WRITER: Yûji Sakamoto
SCORE: Ryuichi Sakamoto
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