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'Monster' Review: Kore-Eda Hirokazu's Stirring Drama Shifts The Perspective | TIFF 2023

Hiiragi Hinata and Kurokawa Soya running in high grass
Well Go USA

As the famous saying goes: monstrous qualities are in the eye of the beholder. Or in the highly edited film print. Well, something along those lines. Director-editor Kore-eda Hirokazu's perspective-shifting drama Monster (怪物 in Japanese) not only challenges the definition of the word in the title throughout its runtime but also is ready to challenge a viewer's likely preconceptions. We first meet Saori (Ando Sakura), a single mom who notices her son Minato's (Kurokawa Soya) changing behaviour and tracks down the problem to be with his teacher Mr. Hori's (Nagayama Eita) alleged abuse of Minato. Saori confronts Mr. Hori and the school staff, also learning that the conflict includes Minato's bullied classmate Yori (Hiiragi Hinata). We see the situation develop and escalate from Saori, Mr. Hori and Minato's flawed perspectives each.

Kore-eda frames the story mostly with his usual style and aesthetics, as exemplified by using nature and daylight as vibrant elements that add depth to the frames and having colours of the night express danger or uncertainty, but what is notable is that you see those elements reflected in the script as well. Sakamoto Yuji's writing well and truly sings, presenting flawed, real characters that become so real because they're constantly trying to overcome their flaws. As is true to life, you don't always do that neatly or gracefully but you do that sincerely when there is thematic heft backing those decisions. Monster talks about the separation of good and evil from a moral standpoint which, sure, is quite simple but Sakamoto builds on that with notions about education, self-exploration, parental guidance, societal norms and even bigotry that can manifest itself as peer pressure.

Inherent structure that reveals layers of the story as it goes on is smartly crafted by Sakamoto but its effect is elevated because it's in fluent conversation with Kore-eda's editing which doesn't adhere to typical scene entrances or exits and keeps things unpredictable just like the story does. Kondo Ryuto's photography compliments the friction those things fabricate by emphasising distance and harsh light when necessary and being inventive whenever a scene unfolds in a new perspective.

The actors seem to be revelling in the material, youngsters Kurokawa and Hiiragi delivering very mature performances (shoutout to casting director Tabata Toshie) whilst their characters' interactions can and are encouraged to be read in different ways. Personally speaking, some of the Yori's arc appeared so that he just didn't conform to narrow-minded gender norms or that he was neurodivergent, possibly undiagnosed due to poor parenting, and while that could still be a worthy read of the situation, the film expanded on his and Minato's synergy in a way that felt wholly gratifying.

Kurokawa succeeds in a different manner since he's tackling the text with intensity that blends well with that of Ando and Nagayama—both who also find deep emotions in their characters—but is interestingly not at all present when Minato is feeling comfortable with a peer. Only Yuko Tanaka's outing as the school's principal Mrs. Fushimi felt overly vague and performative, sticking out like a sore thumb.

Now, who was the real monster all along? How is one created? That's really not the point of the story or its plot, it's something that you can think about afterwards while enjoying the twists and revelations as they happen. Leave something to the imagination later.

Smileys: Screenplay, structure, acting, editing, cinematography

Frowneys: Some issues with Yuko Tanaka's performance

Monster University: Chapter 2: The Sequel.


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