Interview: Hirokazu Kore-eda on Monster
This article appeared in the December 7, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Monster (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2023)
The Japanese have two words for “monster”: kaibutsu, which refers to a physical, terrestrial creature; and obake, which is more ethereal, like a ghost or specter. For Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, he uses the former. (There’s also kaiju, but this isn’t one of those films.) Initially, we assume the monster must be haunting Minato (Soya Kurokawa), a 10-year-old boy struggling at school, and we search the film in vain: perhaps the monster is his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), who picks on the kid; or Mrs. Fushimi (Yûko Tanaka), the school principal, who doesn’t care. Or maybe Minato is the monster after all—a mean thug who bullies his much smaller, stranger classmate, Yori (Hinata Hiiragi). Or are they friends? Or more than friends? For much of the film, it’s a matter of perspective.
In the first section we see things through the eyes of Saori (Sakura Andô), Minato’s widowed mother, and in the second chapter, the same events are told from the perspective of Mr. Hori. But it’s not until the final chapter, where we see the perspectives of the children—a world totally inaccessible to adults—that things start to make sense. “As adults, we’re completely ignorant that we might be monsters,” Kore-eda told me during the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where the film won both the Queer Palm and the Best Screenplay award. We discussed the genesis of his latest feature, which opened in U.S. theaters last month; his collaboration with writer Yûji Sakamoto and the late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; and how filmmaking plays with people’s perceptions.
I read that you’ve wanted to work with Yûji Sakamoto for a long time. Given that Sakamoto is best known for his television writing, and you recently wrote and directed the series The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, I wondered if you saw the two mediums converging in Monster.
I’m of the generation that grew up watching television—serial television. I like serial television and I know what appeals it holds, but for me, film is something different. If I have a chance to, I would love to try my hand at serial television, but cinema… when you leave the theater, the world looks different. That’s unique to cinema, in my mind. You can’t get that from watching television or films at home. When I make films, I try to be conscious of that: to make sure my films provide this feeling.
That’s something of a theme in this film, actually: the world being reborn. Toward the end of the story, there’s this great storm, and in its aftermath the children ask, “Are we reborn? Have we changed or are we the same?”
Of course, with the writer, the kids, the cast as a whole, we all shared our thoughts about the ending—we discussed that a great deal. On the first page of my script, from very early on, I had written the line: “Is it us who needs to change, or can the world change?” From the beginning, I knew that was the idea we had to address at the end of the film. With regard to that scene in particular, it’s the kids who are able to affirm themselves [by] being completely true to who they are. The world around them needs to change.
The script is so integral to the film’s structure, which reveals the story slowly over the course of three episodes, all playing the same events from differing perspectives. I was curious how you decided to release information visually, or how you set certain thresholds of exposition.
My involvement in the film began in December 2018, when the film was just a plot. I was involved with the script for the next six months, sharing opinions and whatnot, and that’s how we arrived at the first draft, which was going to be about three hours long. So we had to cut one third of it out somehow.
The question of when to reveal things was something we meticulously worked on and thought about throughout the filmmaking process—in the writing and rewriting and filming. The mother’s chapter is about 45 minutes long, but even after that, you don’t know anything. And then the second chapter ends, and you still don’t quite see what’s happening, even though you’re receiving new information. We tried to strike a balance where the audience wasn’t frustrated, but rather had the desire to know more.
I thought the structure was interesting because it clearly separates the world of children from that of adults. I remember being a kid and not knowing how to communicate, internalizing so much stress and guilt because you don’t realize that if you just talk you can fix a lot of problems.
Let me first share that Yûji wrote this story from his own experiences—he had a friend at school with whom he couldn’t communicate his feelings, much like in the film, and he always carried that with him. That’s what he told me.
You know what I said earlier, about the question of whether the world can be reborn? You can also use the word “adults” interchangeably with “world.” Minato thinks he might be a monster. At the beginning, he feels something he cannot name. The fact that he feels there’s something wrong within him is because of the value system of the adults around him, how the grown-ups in our lives govern our understanding of what’s right and wrong—especially with regard to masculinity, and telling people, “This is normal” and “This is not.” In the film, it’s this attitude that ends up persecuting the kids. It’s a structure I’m referring to. Not the bullying itself—not the kid being a bully or being bullied or whatever—but the grown-ups who are telling these kids that certain things are not normal. That’s what leads to bullying. And the grown-ups do this without knowing it.
We have Yori and his father, who is a brutal, violent man. He should be prosecuted for what he’s doing, of course, but on the other hand, the little things we say, the throwaway phrases—like what Minato’s mother, Saori, says to the teacher: “You should make up like men”—these words can be violent also. We say these things without realizing it, without realizing the effect they can have on our children, which is so damaging. As adults, we’re completely ignorant that we might be monsters. The kids are the only ones who can shed light on that fact. And so, in chapters one and two, we look for the monster, but can’t find it, and in chapter three, of course, it’s revealed that we are the monsters, thanks only to the light of the children.
I wanted to ask about Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score—specifically something you said in an interview: “If he had turned me down, I would’ve had to change the fundamental concept of my direction.” What exactly did you mean by that?
I was going to make a film without music.
All the music that comes from the film—especially the moment with the trombone, the sound you hear three times—I was just going to limit the music of the film to that. The train, the wind… those kinds of sounds. Those would stay with you. But I wrote Ryuichi and had him see the film, and he wrote back and told me that those sounds we hear from the trombone are so incredible that he wanted to write a score to match it. I feel that we shared the same sensitivities and values.
James Wham lives in London and writes for New Left Review and The Baffler.