Vague Visages’ Monster review contains minor spoilers. Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2023 movie features Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama and Soya Kurokawa. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Monster, the latest film by prolific Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, begins with an aftermath. The 126-minute thriller opens with the sound of sirens as fire trucks clear roads to reach an ablaze hostess bar. Various civilians watch the fire from nearby balconies, but Monster focuses on a son and mother: Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and Saori (Sakura Ando). As the fire rages, the younger character says, “If a human gets a pig’s brain transplanted, is it a human or a pig?”
Minato’s opening remarks and the wider theme of substitution recur in Monster. Koreeda turns the subject of human replacement over and over, showing a new side to it each time similar questions are reframed. As the film’s tripartite structure demonstrates, what is seen completely depends on perspective — where the point of view is positioned, but also what external factors either extend or limit its access. The narrative’s three sections focus on Saori, Minato’s teacher Hori (Eita Nagayama) and Minato’s relationship with his apparent new friend Eri (Hinata Hiiragi).
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In Monster, absence is not necessarily one of these limitations. Characters often do not appear in scenes from other sections, even when the narrative covers the same ground and offers new revelations. But their absence holds its own power, as strings are pulled from offstage as often as on it. In the opening moments, Minato and his mother sing “Happy Birthday” to a photograph of the family patriarch, complete with cake and candles. The younger character’s father is the only individual in Monster who can never reappear, but the grief his loved ones feel for him propels the film’s mystery, making one question what lengths the surviving family members would go to with an added push from their unparalleled pain.
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Minato’s mother says that “He can hear you,” which leads to a discussion of the father’s cremation process and the possibility of rebirth. The interest is bigger than adolescent curiosity, as the severity of the protagonists’ loss makes them believe in extremes. Monster is underpinned by the tantalizing possibility of the supernatural — its restorative potential, its unknowable dangers, its implausibility.
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As Koreeda’s elusive but hypnotic mystery unfolds, viewers are encouraged to believe in a range of possibilities. At different stages — complicit in Monster’s narrative game and subjected to its perspective tricks — on might ask, “Who was responsible for the fire? Who is bullying who at Minato’s school?” In the first section alone, Minato suddenly cuts his hair, leaves it in a sink, wanders into a forest and jumps out of a moving car.
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Uncertainties abound at the school, too. Minato’s mother has a meeting with staff to talk about the bullying, and she’s greeted by evasive administrative non-sequiturs from a non-cooperative principal. The principal apologizes on behalf of Hori, repeatedly referring to “a misunderstanding” while insisting that the boy’s instruction was “not accurately conveyed.” The camera finds Saori through the arms and backs of these male teachers, who appear to be speaking through the female principal, who is reserved because she has her own secrets. In a later meeting, where the principal is accompanied by a giggling Hori, Saori tells her, “You don’t have a human heart.”
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This articulation constantly yo-yos between being a figure of speech, a reference to Minato and Eri’s science lessons and the possible anticipation of Monster’s departure from realism. The options of replacement include the film’s title, which could take any of these three forms, and “alien” — an alternative, but not equivalent, that is introduced when the boys in class name-call Eri. In Koreeda’s film, the distinction between monster and alien is connected to the disparity between celebration and fear. Love and unkindness are lost somewhere in these oppositions, with Monster constantly striving for the former while being too aware of the latter to ignore it.
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Monster is about distorted airwaves, because “what actually happened [often] doesn’t matter,” as Hori is told in the second section. Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay frequently spells out this instability, confessing that narrative truth is naturally slippery through various signs in its film language — from Saori’s t-shirt reading “A light that never goes out” to a reveal about jarring, diegetic brass music (which first seems non-diegetic). Or more cogently, the idea that everything has an alternative is communicated in Saori and Hori’s alternating calls of “Minato” and “Mugino” as Monster’s second section gives way to the third.
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The formality of student-teacher relationships in Japan, as well as the language’s rules and customs, may be responsible for Monster’s Minato-Mugino division. But it also announces the realization that Koreeda’s film leaves both its characters and the audience with. Children and adults are complex; they behave differently depending on who they are with, performing various roles to survive. Monster underlines this lesson by masterfully harmonizing writing, performance, cinematography, sound and more. The lights come up and it is the spectator’s responsibility to act on it, then pass on the teaching.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) has just finished a PhD on contemporary fiction at King’s College London, where he also taught American literature for three years. He is both a short fiction and culture writer. George’s recent publications include Avatar Review, BRUISER, Clackamas Literary Review and Watershed Review, and he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ 2019 Short Story Competition. His work can be found at: https://georgeoliverkowalik.wordpress.com/.
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