Hirokazu Kore-eda's film will keep you guessing who really is the ‘monster’ until you realize it’s all of us; the heteronormative patriarchal society shames those who don’t conform to norms set for their gender

“A child is born like a blank slate and its later behaviour is shaped by experience,” philosopher and physician John Locke once wrote about children. To compare a child’s brain with a blank slate implies that many of their behaviours and strongly-held belief systems are shaped in their developmental years.

It is, therefore, not a surprise that when a fifth grade student, Yori Hoshikawa (Hinata Hiiragi), in Monster is told by his abusive father: “Your brain isn’t a human brain but a pig’s brain. I plan on turning it back to a human brain”. Yori is convinced there is something wrong with him, that he has a disease that must be cured.

Owing to his seemingly effeminate behaviour, Yori is bullied by the boys in his class and his father furthers this abuse at home by shaming him for his queer identity. Everything goes for a toss when Minato Mugino’s (Sōya Kurokawa) mother Saori Mugino (Sakura Andō) discovers that her son is behaving strangely at home — from chopping his hair off to coming home with a single shoe.

We are all monsters in each other’s stories

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda from a screenplay written by Yuji Sakamoto, Monster traces the sequence of events that led to the disappearance of Minato through three different perspectives — that of his mother Saori, his teacher Michitoshi Hori (Eita Nagayama) and Minato himself. As the story unfolds, the significance of the film’s title becomes clear. We are all monsters in each other’s stories. Kore-eda’s film is no different.

For Saori, who is convinced that her son Minato is being abused by his teacher Mr Hori, the school administration is full of monsters — after all, they didn’t take the corrective measures to stop the act in the first place. For Hori, who misread a couple situations and assumed Minato is the one bullying Yori, parents are the root of the problem, especially single mothers — as his girlfriend says, “they are overprotective”.

The school administration drops Mr Hori like a hot potato when their reputation is at stake. They couldn’t care less who the monster is — as long as it isn’t them. We get so caught up in painting others as monsters that we often forget to check for the one inside us, the monster who eludes our conscience but is very much present.

Kore-eda’s film is a masterpiece because it shows truth may not always be objective and perspective often decides who the real monster is. Like Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall which released in Indian theatres last week, Monster will keep you guessing who really is at fault until you realize the blame is ours to take — the heteronormative patriarchal society where any expression of queerness is shamed and those who slightly deviate from stereotypical masculine behaviour are bullied, where even their guardians refuse to stand up for them and their teachers want them to “shake hands like men” to help the young boys toughen up,

A celebration of queerness and childhood innocence

Besides being a suspenseful thriller and a critique of the heteronormative society, Kore-eda’s film is, at its heart, a celebration of queerness and childhood innocence. It is testament to how queer love blooms and flourishes even in the most homophobic setups. Having run out of safe-spaces to hang out, Yori and Minato create their own safe space — an abandoned railcar where the two get to express their queerness openly, sans the fear of bullies.

Minato isn’t immediately accepting of his queer identity. His internalised homophobia gets the best of him one day when he chops off his hair at home because Yori loves playing with them. In a moment of honesty, Minato confesses, “I lied” admitting that he made Mr Hori lose his job because he didn’t want his queer identity to be exposed publicly.

Kore-eda’s Monster can be viewed as a cautionary tale for parents, teachers and school administration on why they must treat their kids with kindness

That is when the principal of the school and arguably the most divisive character in the film, Makiko Fushimi (played to perfection by Yūko Tanaka), admits “she lied too”, referring to the death of her grandchild for which she blamed her husband. It is alluded to several times in the film via rumours or hearsay that the Principal did, in fact, kill her grandchild by hitting her with a car.

In a heartfelt moment, the Principal has an honest conversation with Minato, urging him to accept his queer identity. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, the Principal says “If only some people can have it, it is not happiness. It is nonsense. Happiness is something anyone can have”, thus helping Minato accept that there is nothing wrong with him for being attracted to the same-sex.

One is left wondering — how can a woman, one who murdered her own grandchild by hitting her with a car and then framed her husband for it, give such heartfelt advice to a young queer kid? Perhaps, that is the beauty of Kore-eda’s cinema. He exposes the dichotomies within the characters and brings out the best and the worst in them to the point where it becomes difficult to believe they are the monster you thought they were.

A cautionary tale, and a promise

The film ends on a divisive note with an ending which will arguably be discussed, dissected and debated for days to come. As the typhoon hits Japan, both Minato and Yori leave their respective homes and go to their safe space — the abandoned railcar. A few minutes later, Mr Huri and Minato’s mother arrive at the van but they do not see their kids in the van.

In a flashback, it is revealed that the two kids did enter the van and that it moved because of the typhoon. The kids emerge from the bottom of the railcar, go through an alleyway and come out on the other side to sunny skies and green fields. The two kids run into the white light. It isn’t really revealed if the kids died or remained alive.

While one cannot say for sure if the kids survived, Kore-eda’s Monster can be viewed as a cautionary tale for parents, teachers and school administration on why they must treat their kids with kindness and take any instance of bullying very, very seriously considering the ramifications it can have on a child’s well-being.

Besides, Monster also serves as a promise that there exists a world as magical as the one where Yori and Manito run joyously and it needn’t necessarily be in the afterlife. As long as one is in a safe space where their identities are accepted, this world isn’t completely out of their reach.

The winner of the prestigious Queer Palm and Best Screenplay at 76th Cannes Film Festival, Monster is now playing in theatres.

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