Friday 26 January 2024

Kaibutsu / Monster

My first encounter with a film by director Kore-eda Hirokazu was at the 2004 Viennale Film Festival, at a screening of Dare mo Shiranai / Nobody Knows. It’s about four half-siblings who are left alone in their apartment when their mother disappears. The oldest among them, twelve-year-old Akira, tries to take care of everyone but his resources are limited. Inevitably, things go horribly wrong, but the exceptional quality of the film is the way in which it captures the inner lives of the children, their perception of the world and Akira’s attempts to maintain normalcy for his siblings, even when it becomes impossible.

Kaibutsu shares with Nobody Knows that its most moving emotional moments happen when there are no adults in sights. Kore-eda splits the film into three segments, each following one of the main characters. First, Saori (Sakura Ando), Minato’s mother, becomes concerned about her son’s behavioural changes and blaming his home-room teacher, who she thinks is inflicting physical and psychological punishment on her child, advocates for him at his school, an incredibly frustrating process. The troubled principal of the school who has just lost her grandchild in a terrible accident makes an apology that doesn’t actually acknowledge what has happened, and none of the teachers or staff in the school seem willing to either take responsibility or make changes to what Saori perceives as a great injustice. Eventually, Hori (Eita Nagayama) loses his job, but the second part of the film that follows him shows that he was never the “monster” that Saori perceived him to be, that he genuinely tried his best to care for the children and has fallen victim to Minato’s inability to be truthful about what is actually happening. The third part of the film follows Minato (Soya Kurokawa) and reveals the truth of the events – where there were previous hints that Minato may in fact be a bully rather than the one being bullied, it turns out that he has befriended Yori (Hinata Hiragi), a kid constantly targeted by other children for being different. The only true monster in the film is Yori’s father, who is abusing his son after his wife has left him, and the failure of the adult characters in the film is either realising that the abuse is happening or effectively protecting Yori from it. This doesn’t seem to stem from any kind of ill will or deliberate neglect, but a failure to see or communicate, as if something is ultimately untranslatable between the experiences of the children and the adult characters in the film – a gap that is only bridged briefly when the grieving principal connects with Minato and shows him how to play an instrument.

To make things more difficult, Minato has also discovered that his own feelings for Yori go deeper than friendship, and he doesn’t have any conceptual framework to make sense of those feelings or talk about them with his loving and tender but also overworked and overwhelmed single mother. Yori and Minato create their own little world together in an abandoned train compartment in the woods, and Kore-eda’s care in portraying what they create together is beautiful – it’s a world without adults, imaginative and creative, threatened by the misunderstanding and violence of the outside as well as a coming storm. The magic of the film is that the catastrophe, in the end, is averted, even though it looms over the entire film until the very last scene.

2023, directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, starring Sakura Ando, Eita Nagayama, Soya Kurokawa, Hinata Hiiragi.

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