by Yurika Matsumori
Editor’s note: Yurika Matsumori is Hawaii Reporter’s newest film critic. A keen observer of Japanese Cinema and a native speaker, she also interviewed both Messrs. Kore-eda and Yuji Sakamoto (screenplay author) about their collaboration on Monster. The film was screened at HIFF 2023.
The story begins with a familiar scenario. A fifth grader, Minato Mugino (Sōya Kurokawa), tells his mother that he is bullied and mistreated by his teacher, Michitoshi Hori (Eita Nagayama). His concerned mother, Saori Mugino (Sakura Andō), pays a visit to school to confront the school officials on the issue. At first, it is easy to assume that this is yet another movie that addresses bullying, a prevalent societal problem in Japan, the United States and elsewhere.
However familiar the scenario is, this is not just another bullying rehash.
This film won the Best Screenplay and Queer Palm Award at Cannes Film Festival and Gold Q-Hugo at Chicago International Film Festival. It has been nominated for more honors.
To understand the genesis of this film, I interviewed the director Hirokazu Kore-eda and the screenwriter Yūji Sakamoto. Mr. Sakamoto said, “I discussed the script with the producer when I started writing it. I wanted to create a story where the narrative unfolds many times, and with each twist, what one originally saw would change. The methodological approach for creating such a story came first. I recalled a moment when I was driving and stopped behind a truck at a red light. When the light turned green, the truck didn’t move immediately. I honked the horn a few times, and only then did the truck start moving. Then, I saw someone in a wheelchair in the crosswalk after the truck had passed. I regretted honking the horn even though the truck was big, blocking my view of the wheelchair. It made me aware how unintentionally one can become a perpetrator without realizing it, and I wanted to turn that experience into a story. I also included early childhood memories in the screenplay.”
The film unfolds in three “chapters.”
The first is expressed through the eyes of Minato’s mother, when she starts noticing unusual behaviors and things surrounding her son. She suspects that he is being bullied and humiliated by his teacher Hori. We are led to believe, at this point, that Hori is the bad guy.
The second is communicated through the eyes of Hori, who perceives that Minato is bullying Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), his classmate. Maybe Hori is not a miscreant after all.
In the concluding chapter, the narrative is transmitted through the voices of the children, Minato and Yori. Through their interaction, we perceive yet another “truth”—maybe there was no bullying going on after all.
Despite the three chapters, the story plays out in a non-linear fashion. The “truth” is interpreted by characters from their own perspectives. This includes secondary characters such as other classmates. For example, a student tells Hori that she saw Minato playing with a dead cat, and he later believes that Minato killed the cat. In reality, Minato was trying to help the cat reincarnate.
When these individual stories are woven together, the viewers begin to realize the adage, that things are not what they seem. As I watched the movie from perspectives of different individuals, of course my own interpretation of the “truth” kept changing. For example, when Minato’s mother saw that one of Minato’s shoes was missing, I suspected bullying, just as she appeared to do also. I later realize that the missing shoe was part of an innocuous play that had nothing to do with bullying. This participatory nature of the viewing experience kept me engaged throughout the movie.
As the story nears the end, Minato provides a confession to the principal, Makiko Fushimi (Yūko Tanaka), that offers viewers the final piece of the puzzle. He says he lied to Mr. Hori and he’s been lying to the truth because there is someone he likes, but he cannot tell that to anyone; he says that he would never be happy for the rest of his life if he told.
The movie depicts the organization’s needs coming before individual’s and that conformity is valued and expected in the Japanese culture. The teacher is expected to go along with the accusations of bullying to save the colleagues and the school. In fact, the principal says, “what really happened doesn’t matter. You will defend our school.” In the American culture, this scenario of placing the organization’s needs before individual’s would be unlikely and would not end up in a movie script. The teacher would have immediately and clearly asserted his or her truth and would have retained an attorney. A good part of the narrative was based on the notion of conformity in the Japanese culture. As someone who grew up in Japan, I could easily relate.
In addition to the masterfully crafted screenplay, I loved the piano pieces composed by highly acclaimed Ryūichi Sakamoto which are befitting of the sentiments of the characters. It also complements the beautiful location setting of Suwa, Nagano Prefecture where the story takes place.
The lingering question in the film, is of course, who or exactly what is the Monster? This becomes Yori and Minato’s guessing game.
As the director Kore-eda shared during our interview, “everyone carries a metaphorical monster within themselves.” I interpret this psychological fact akin to Carl Jung’s Shadow. According to Kore-eda, “it’s an intangible entity, sometimes visible, sometimes not, affecting human relationships – an unseen barrier in interpersonal relationships.”
THAT is the Monster. And I agree with Mr. Kore-eda, it lives within all of us.
Yurika Matsumori is a medical speech-language pathologist specializing in cognitive linguistic communication and dysphagia challenges. A native speaker of Japanese who spent formative years in Osaka, Japan, she earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Duke University and an M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from Columbia University, enriched by study abroad experiences in Germany and Spain.
Yurika’s interest in language and communication extends beyond the clinical setting and into the captivating world of cinema, where she plays a role as a movie reviewer and entertainment writer. She is excited to share stories compelled by her fascination with the narratives unfolding on the silver screen.
Yurika’s commitment to facilitating communication also led to her previous involvement with Toastmasters International for many years. As a member, she undertook various leadership roles and received advanced communication and leadership awards. A mother of four, Yurika enjoys engaging in a wide variety of activities such as being immersed in nature through hiking and kayaking, maintaining physical health and well-being at the gym, expressing herself through singing, or engaging in a challenging game of Scrabble.
She looks forward to sharing her perspective and observations on cinema with Hawaii Reporter readers.