Cannes #76 - “Monster” Review
2018 Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-Eda is back on the Croisette with Monster, once again offering an intimate window into Japanese society. More than ever, though, Western audiences might struggle to understand the customs and nuances essential to understanding the film.
When ten-year-old Minato exhibits distressing behaviour, his single mother accuses his teacher of severe physical and psychological abuse. But whilst, in the West, this would see the immediate involvement of law enforcement, in Japan the child doesn’t even change school. The best his mother, Saori, can do is to complain to the passive principal - who shows no willingness to help. In fact, the school’s headmaster has to consult a manual before answering any questions, including the rhetorical one if she’s even a human at all. When faced with the facts, she declares: “what actually happened doesn’t matter”; all that matters is the form. Everything is orchestrated and rehearsed, from the eventual apology to the amended seating plan, and even when to bow. Through these sacred, perhaps excessive, Japanese formalities, real communication is compromised: the school staff’s answer to the complaint is to bow to the mother.
So who’s the monster? This is what a child sings in a nursery rhyme, echoing the viewers’ thoughts. The pupil Minato is supposed to be nicknamed “monster” by the supposedly monstrous teacher who allegedly abuses him. Or perhaps is it the principal who condones such misconduct? At one point, even the parents are called “monsters” by the school staff for being overprotective. This is where the picture’s strength really lies, in the classic Kore-Eda formula of slowly disclosing and radically altering our understanding of the unfolding plot. The Japanese auteur carefully directs our sympathies for each character, presenting the same events each time from a different point of view.
The film employs a Rashomon device, which is not original, and the repetitive structure doesn’t help - the fresh breeze of reconsideration brought the first time we reset eventually wears out. When we are manipulated to take a particular character’s side, we gladly take that side. But we also somehow know the same redeeming faith awaits the other characters - it feels far too contrived.
Overall, this is a film about cancel culture: the irresistible, malicious pleasure of badmouthing and consequently ruining someone’s life by destroying their reputation. In Monster, this feels like a constant threat, recalling Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Eventually, we witness the truth, understand the social implications, and suffer for our impotence.