starring Ando Sakura, Kurosawa Koya, Nagayama Eita
written by Sakamoto Yûji
directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Walter Chaw Hirokazu Kore-eda is a keeper of secrets, a guardian of hidden things and a priest of the ritual of childhood. Watching his stuff feels like an invitation into intimate spaces, and I can't shake the feeling, however impossible, that they're places I've been before. I recall, for instance, a little half-loft built into the silversmithing store my father used to own. When I was too young to work or too tired from working, I'd climb up into it to read, or sleep, or peep down onto the sales floor, where customers would mill in and out. I hadn't thought at all of that tiny vantage, a crow's nest floating above a turgid sea of confused nostalgia, until I saw Kore-eda's new film, Monster, which, of course, has nothing to do with silversmithing stores or fathers who have journeyed past the horizon or boats unmoored and lost in listless seas.
I admire Kore-eda's entire filmography, love some of it, and have been largely incapable of revisiting any of it. I watch his movies and marvel, yet I can't bring myself to watch them again. They feel transgressive, like the moral conundrum of the Catholic rite of Communion, the act of which resurrects the suffering of the host for a moment to endure the ritualistic cannibalism of His flock. There's a similar sense of the holy and the obscene in Kore-eda's films; they feel like butterflies in a box waiting for the curious but wilting from the heat--a game of peek-a-boo you lose if you ever take your hands away from your face. How do I describe the exquisite pain of these pictures? I am ashamed somehow for watching them and doing nothing to help his heroes: the children succumbing to the vicissitudes of living; the families rent by capricious and sometimes literal storms.
The first Kore-eda film I saw was 2004's Nobody Knows, about four half-siblings squatting in an abandoned apartment where three of them aren't supposed to be, and so they keep out of sight and develop mechanisms for survival that turn out to be as tenuous and unsustainable as you're afraid they're going to be from the start. The period in which they're thriving, though, is more exhilarating for your knowledge that it can't possibly last. The children are clever and resourceful, but they're just kids, after all, and when a terrible accident occurs, there's no one to stem the ensuing chaos. I have wondered more than once if Kore-eda is a sadist. Nobody Knows is emotionally brutalizing. To some extent, every one of his movies is. I went backwards from Nobody Knows and saw the films leading up to it, my favourite of which is the emotionally lacerating After Life (1998), in which the recently dead are granted a week to choose one memory to take with them into eternity. It reminds me of both Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life (1991) and Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), devastating me in the way art that challenges memory does now that mine is increasingly unreliable. I'm no longer certain about the origins of scars. Do I remember everything correctly? Are the events that haunt me deserving of that power over me, or have I wasted my time mourning? Could my life have been different had I only remembered everything differently? Maybe I've chosen to despair.
I approached Monster, then, with equal parts anticipation and trepidation. It's his Rashomon, a multifaceted take on our current crisis of generational tension through three perspectives that each reveal a wholly different truth. Like Kurosawa's masterpiece, the story you find yourself most empathizing with teases out your personal biases. The picture opens with the destruction-by-arson of a "hostess bar" rumoured to be frequented by handsome young primary-school teacher Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayami). It's an event that single mom Saori (Sakura Ando) and her troubled, hyper-sensitive boy Minato (Soya Kurokawa) witness from their modest two-bedroom apartment. Minato climbs up on the bannister for a better view, and Saori, as mothers do, pulls him down with a mild admonishment. It seems that Minato has a bit of doom attached to him, a whiff of suicide and despair he lets slip one day when he comes home from school battered and despondent. Saori suspects bullies. She doesn't suspect it could be Mr. Hori. The first third of the film is Saori trying to get a united front of administrators and teachers at Minato's school to admit that Mr. Hori is an abusive scumbag given to telling kids they have the "brains of a pig" and hitting them across the face when they irritate him. Such is Kore-eda's mastery of human interactions that I felt my blood pressure rising along with Saori's.
But when the point-of-view shifts to the monster himself, Mr. Hori, we discover that he's...kind, empathetic, a dedicated civil servant who loves his job and these kids in his charge, sucked into a series of allegations of which he's innocent, though he can in no way prove that. He's trapped in one of those scenarios where the more defensive he gets, the guiltier he will look. Then we see Minato's version, and meet a child riddled with guilt over his friendship with quivering, too-delicate classmate Eri (Hinata Hiiragi), whom he has taken under his wing, making Minato the shared target of Eri's bullies. Once or twice, Minato is Eri's bully. The two imagine mad adventures in a derelict trolley car left abandoned and overgrown in the wilderness just outside of town--a place of green like Kurosawa's forest-set Rashomon, which, in Kurosawa's words, represented the thicket of the hearts of the human character. And so it is here in Kore-eda's film. By the end of Monster, everything is a tangle of thistles and vines that have ensnared Saori, Mr. Hori, and Minato. They are miserable and exhausted. The more they struggle, the tighter the trap gets. I haven't been this exhilarated being unhappy since the last Kore-eda film. I think we'll one day look back on his body of work as akin to Michael Haneke's or Lars von Trier's. Maybe even Gaspar Noé's? Provocateurs, all, but also trenchant social critics who attack us where we're complacent (and, as a consequence, unguarded). Tender. Maybe he's the Japanese Buñuel. Maybe he's singular. Monster is beautiful in its awful humanity. I am blessed to have seen it once, and I'll never watch it again.