Having won the Jury Prize in 2013 for Like Father, Like Son and the Palme d’Or in 2018 with Shoplifters, Cannes favourite and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns with Monster, a masterful work of intricate storytelling, complemented by a lovely score by the late Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Growing up is hard. The films of Hideo Miyazaki or the Japanese series Old Enough! can make childhood feel like an idyllic moment and place. But as Lukas Dhont’s Close intimated, children have complicated and powerful interior lives that adults often have no access to. Kore-eda has regularly found both comedy and dark tragedy in the dysfunctions of families and how it is often the children who suffer. From Nobody Knows to Shoplifters, Kore-eda has investigated the Japanese families in a series of folds and manipulations as if testing the idea to destruction.
All is not well in the prefecture of Nagano, where Minato (Soya Kurokawa) lives with Saori (Sakura Ando), a single mother holding down her job in a dry cleaners, mourning the death of her adulterous husband and trying to keep up with Minato as he heads for elementary school. He’s a curious and at times odd little boy and red flags begin to arise – a missing trainer, an unexplained injury, an attempt to cut his own hair – which leads her to fear that something is up at school. At first she believes that his new teacher Mr. Michitoshi (Eita Nagayama) has bullied her son. Then she begins to suspect that maybe something else is wrong. Minato’s classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi) is also behaving strangely and it might be that Minato is the perpetrator rather than the victim. A building burns down at the very beginning, potentially the work of an arsonist. Are there monsters really? And if so, who are they?
At first, Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay seems overwritten. The conceit of the same period of time and story being told from three successive perspectives is the kind of trickiness that is easy to trip over itself, losing its point in shimmering versions of the same thing. But Kore-eda is an absolute craftsman and making the simple complicated and the complicated simple. With one shot – rain falling on a muddy window – a wealth of meaning resides.
Despite the multiple viewpoints, Monster is actually the anti-Rashomon, a jigsaw puzzle rather than a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The care and empathy with which the director and writer, as well as the performers, extend to all corners of the piece is extraordinary. Even relatively minor characters like the school principal whose husband has been involved in a tragic accident (played by Yuko Tanaka) has a story and moments worthy of her own film. There’s a moment when she gives some whimsical advice which is just about credible and which a lesser film would’ve endorsed, before dismissing itself as self-serving nonsense.
There is a broader commentary on intergenerational strife here. In a supermarket, a sweet old lady trips up a child who is tearing around. The little smile she gives is both horrible and comic. Who hasn’t wanted to trip a running child? On one level, the children seem to have so much importance – a group of them in the opening scene ride their bicycles in front of a fire engine which is trying to get to a fire as it politely asks them to give way (they don’t) – but if there’s a conflict they are going to be the losers. They might sometimes seem like little aliens to us adults, but they are trying to negotiate a planet they’ve only just landed on, inhabited by giants who have all the power.
The 76th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty