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Monster by Kore-eda
Image via Cannes

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Cannes 2023: Kore-eda’s Monster is a Bitter-Wweet Coming-of-Age Drama

A bitter-sweet coming-of-age drama from the Japanese master of family suspense!

To foreign eyes, Japan’s school system may seem inscrutably strange and early on in Monster, the main character Minato, a boy of about 12, cuts off chunks of his hair, prompting his worried mother to ask if it is on account of curls being banned. In fact, not only non-straight hair, but any shade of hair lighter than black is generally banned in Japanese schools. As the audience will very gradually find out, it is not the curls themselves that bother pubescent Minato Mugino, but any perceived notion of femininity that might be implied by his longish hair.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Cannes habitué, known for his predilection for exploring the intricacies of childhood, origins and family relations, submerges us in what appears to be the darker side of adolescence, bullying, physical abuse, even potentially self-harm or suicide, for the main characters to finally emerge, literally and figuratively, out of a tunnel and into the light. 

Ostensibly commencing as a drama about school bullying involving a teacher, Monster is structured as a threesome mystery, each of the three segments reflecting a different main characters’ perspective, which forensically fit together into a nuanced, somewhat unexpected reconstruction of events. Simultaneously, it offers an at times hilariously scathing commentary on the entrenched nature of Japanese social norms and hierarchies. Will Minato and his ostracised schoolmate Yori manage to free themselves of school mockery, self-loathing and social conventions – therein lies the psychological thriller aspect of this film…

Monster by Kore-eda.
Image via Cannes

The drama kicks off in an unnamed small town in rural Japan with Minato’s widowed mother Saori, played by the excellent Sakura Ando, trying to get to the roots of her son’s worrying behaviour. Minato is withdrawn, refusing, as a typical teen would, to share his preoccupations with his adoring mother and more worryingly, is showing some signs of physical abuse. Saori single-handedly takes upon the highly hierarchical Japanese school system in a series of absurd encounters with the school director and teachers, probably the most comical, albeit highly implausible, sequences in the film. The bulk of her ire is directed toward a Mr. Hori, ostensibly the teacher responsible for Minato’s abuse. Sakura Ando is exquisite as the devoted, kind and funny single mother, apparently a status of shameful connotations in Japanese society; she would normally have a strong chance at the best actress award (were it not for the fact that she gets a lot less screen time in the second and third chapters). Eita Nagayama is also superb as the quirky teacher Mr. Hori who turns out to have a heart of gold after all. 

Kore-eda masterfully interweaves the dark aspects of teenagerhood – reluctance to share problems with parents, feeling a freak, being an outcast, constant bullying from peers – with a whimsically lyrical innocence. There are scenes in the abandoned train carriage which the two boys decorate as a magically escapist hideaway, that are chock- full of kawaii, the Japanese aesthetic of cute. Cute is also embodied in Yori’s character – the smaller of the two boys, a whimsical elf-like child ostracised by classmates as an extraterrestrial on account of his somewhat odd ideas and a certain “feminine” softness, which turns of to be the crux of the storyline. The relationship between the two boys forms the third chapter, where everything is delicately illuminated. Both Kurokawa and Hiiragi are excellent as the child leads, their contrasting personalities gradually coming to terms with SPOILER ALERT sexual orientation in sweet, childlike ways.  

In Monster, Kore-eda is true to his reputation as a master of subtle family dramas full of twists and overarching kindness. The film tells a potentially excruciating story with delicate sensitivity and endearing quirkiness. 

Could it walk away with the best screenplay, or possibly best director, award?

Zornitsa Staneva

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