Legend of the Croisette: How Hirokazu Kore-eda Put a Fresh Spin on His Trademark Humanism for Competition Title ‘Monster’
The Japanese auteur, in Cannes with his new drama, discusses comparisons to Kurosawa’s 'Rashomon,' why the film is a departure for him and collaborating with the late, great composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Cannes Film Festival head honcho Thierry Frémaux often likes to speak of the “Cannes family,” meaning the extended stable of international auteurs whom the festival helped discover, nurtured and has made regulars on the famed red-carpet steps of the Palais des Festivals. Today’s standard-bearer for Japan’s great tradition of humanist filmmaking in Cannes is undoubtedly Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose features have been included in the festival’s official selection seven times, a record for his home country. Incidentally, the leitmotif of Kore-eda’s work is also family — families broken, families in turmoil and families found. His most celebrated films at Cannes have all centered on the theme, albeit in various and inventive ways.
Like Father, Like Son, winner of the 2013 Cannes jury prize, told the story of two boys mistakenly switched at birth, the discovery of which — years later — confronts the parents with the agonizing decision of whether to trade them back or keep the child they have been raising. At the same time, the viewer is presented with an achingly poignant meditation on the shifting roles of honor and love in Japanese fatherhood. In 2016, Kore-eda’s minor key drama After the Storm debuted to critical acclaim in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, offering “a classic Japanese family drama of gentle persuasion and staggering simplicity,” but one “beautifully balanced between gentle comedy and the melancholy reality of how people really are,” as The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer put it at the time.
And in 2018, Kore-eda arrived on the Côte d’Azur with Shoplifters, instantly hailed as his career high watermark — a sentiment with which the festival’s jury agreed, awarding him the Palme d’Or, the first time in over 20 years that Cannes’ top honor went to a Japanese director (following two-time winner and fellow social anthropologist Shohei Imamura with The Eel in 1997 and The Ballad of Narayama in 1988; the great Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha in 1980, and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s 1954 feature Gates of Hell, the first Japanese movie in color to screen in the West). A story of wry humor and uncommon compassion, Shoplifters follows a ragtag group of petty criminals who take in an abused young girl and form a fragile, improvised family for a time. And Kore-eda was back in Cannes’ main competition just last year with Broker, an ensemble drama that he considered a companion piece to Shoplifters, again centering on misfits coming together to find an elusive solace, but this one filmed in the Korean film industry, with the inimitable Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona among the leads. It won Cannes’ prize of the ecumenical jury.
Clearly in a prolific streak — he released his first Netflix series, The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, just in January — Kore-eda, now 60 years old and unquestionably the sort of wise, kind-spirited paterfamilias the world could desperately use more of, returns Cannes’ main competition this May with Monster, a movie touching on many of his signature themes while also breaking new formal ground. The film centers on a boy named Minato, whose single mother feels he has begun to act strangely and that something must be wrong. Discovering that a teacher is responsible, she storms into the school demanding to know what’s going on. But the story is told in three distinct chapters — via the views of the mother, teacher and child— and as we see the story repeatedly, Rashomon-like, through each character’s eyes, the truth gradually emerges.
Kore-eda has tended to write his own screenplays and Monster is the first film since his fictional debut Mabaroshi (1995) that was written by another screenwriter. Monster is scripted by Yuji Sakamoto, the writer of acclaimed Japanese TV series including Mother, Woman and Matrimonial Chaos. Sakura Ando, one of the breakout leads of Shoplifters, stars as the mother of the story. And the polymath, Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who died in March, wrote the film’s score — his final known music.
The Hollywood Reporter recently sat down with Kore-eda at his offices in Tokyo’s Shibuya district to discuss the making and meanings of Monster. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This is the first time since your Mabaroshi (1995) that you’ve worked with a screenwriter. What was it like directing someone else’s script after writing your own films for so long?
Well, I said for many years that if I were ever to direct again from material that I didn’t write, then it would be [Yuji] Sakamoto that I would like to work with. I told him this directly and I said it in many interviews over the years, because I have always respected him as a great writer of my generation. He had been developing this project with the producers Genki Kawamura and Kenji Yamada, and when they approached me before they even told me what the film was, I immediately said yes, because it was a collaboration I had long been waiting for. I feel we were able to make something really interesting, and I think the film emerged as something slightly different from my previous work.
And once you began the project, what appealed to you about the story itself?
We got started together in 2019. We would periodically meet up and share notes, and then Sakamoto-san would go back to rewrite. And that went on for about three years. From the start, it was the story itself that really appealed to me. I also thought it would present an interesting challenge to me since it had such a distinct three-chapter structure. And, thematically, in this post-pandemic moment, looking around, I feel that you see many examples around the world of people deeming the things they don’t understand to be monsters. This is creating all kinds of divides and fundamental misunderstandings. Perhaps we can’t attribute all of this to just COVID. So, in that regard, I think this was certainly a screenplay that was ahead of its time. When I observe the world around me in this post-pandemic moment, this is a phenomenon that comes across very strongly to me. I find it very troubling and very intriguing. The film actually had a different working title, but at some point in our discussions, I suggested that we should call it Monster.
When a Japanese filmmaker of your stature makes a film that employs a multi-perspective approach to tell its story, it’s kind of impossible not to immediately think of Rashomon, which has traditionally been interpreted as demonstrating the unreliability of individual perspective, and the difficulty, or even impossibility, of universal truth. Monster struck me as similar in its first two chapters, where we first experience the story from the mother’s perspective, and then get the teacher’s point of view on the same events, and also glean a little from the principal’s side. But ultimately, in the third act, we see it from the kids at the center of the story, who seem to reveal the truth of the story and what’s really at stake. The way it all unfolds, it almost seemed to me as if you were using the Rashomon method to express how difficult it is for adults to penetrate and understand the world and experience of children, even when they have the best of intentions. And by implication, the film seemed to be calling for the humanist values that so much of your cinema is about — sensitivity, patience and a very pure form of kindness. Long question. What do you make of all that?
(Laughs) Well, when the film’s inclusion in Cannes was announced, Thierry Frémaux actually used the word Rashomon to describe it, so I guess there will be a lot of people coming to the film with Rashomon in mind. But as you just astutely pointed out, when you get to the third chapter, you will probably know that what we wanted to accomplish is something different. And as you just said, it’s about the existence of the children. We see that the single mother, Saori, is completely engaged with bringing up her child. She may feel a little overbearing at times, but she’s a good mother. We have an expression in Japanese that refers to when you’re buttoning a shirt, and you get the top button in the wrong hole — a small mistake, but then you will button the whole shirt incorrectly. One mistake, or wrong conviction, can lead to everything getting out of hand. Something like this. We then see how the same thing happens to the teacher. It’s not that he has some huge shortcoming — not at all. But once he steps out on the wrong foot, things can go violently the wrong way. Life doesn’t stop for you. Eventually, they both realize that the children are in a place beyond the reach of their understanding. Maybe parents would see that as something to despair and worry about, but I didn’t see it that way. I wanted to see it as a possibility. The fact that the children are in a place that is unreachable by us — I saw that as a source of hope. That was constantly going through my mind as I worked on set.
I can certainly see elements of hope in the ending, but I’m interested to hear a little more about what you found hopeful about this structural dynamic.
Well, I don’t want to spoil anything… I took this as a story about these children who want the world to end, so that they can be reborn. But that will to be reborn eventually starts to run towards a different future. And in that way, I thought it was hopeful. When you said you felt hope in the ending, I hope that’s what you were feeling. In other words, I’d like to think the protagonist was able to affirm himself. That he was able to get to a place where he could say to himself that it’s all okay.
This is the first film you’ve shot in Japan since Shoplifters, after working in France on The Truth and South Korea on Broker. Do you think working abroad on those films changed you as a filmmaker in any way? And what was it like returning to your home turf, working with Japanese actors and crew, in your own language and culture again?
Hmm, did it change me? I suppose, of course, working in France and South Korea helped me grow in some way. Working in those situations was about learning how to draw things out without using language. That was fascinating, but also a very big challenge. Coming back to Japan to shoot this film, everything felt so clear to me. There was no doubt on my part during the entire filming. I don’t know whether that came from having worked on foreign productions or from the freedom of directing someone else’s screenplay, but even compared to all of my previous experiences of shooting in Japan, everything felt so much clearer. I had a strong sense of conviction. But again, I don’t really know why that was.
Monster contains so many Kore-eda-esque motifs and themes, it’s kind of amazing that it was written by someone other than you. One of your themes that comes to mind is the fallibility of institutions. Among the adult characters, ultimately, it’s the school principal who seems to come closest to actually grasping what’s going on. But both she and the school fail terribly in serving their students and teachers when this crisis unfolds. There’s a reflexive institutional risk aversion and an inability, or unwillingness, to really explore and understand the particulars of the situation. It kind of reminded me of the end of Shoplifters, in the way that the social institutions that the characters of that film come up against are fundamentally unable to grasp what these people have experienced together and what they need. Do you see this current in your filmmaking as a social critique of a kind, especially in the Japanese context, or do you believe it’s simply the way tragedy tends to unfold in a complex modern society?
Well, in terms of the overlapping themes between Yuji Sakamoto’s screenplay and my work, that’s only natural because both of us, albeit in different arenas, have always explored similar issues — neglect and biological families versus found, or chosen, families. Thematically, we had a link to begin with and I think that’s why they approached me. But it’s not a surprise to me that you say that because a lot of people who have seen the film say it feels like a natural extension of my work. There were even times when we were shooting that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t written it myself.
In regards to what you said about a commentary on social institutions, in many places, but in Japan especially, we see examples of how the individual is sacrificed to protect the organization or institution. I do think the school is an example of that archetype in this story. But what was more interesting to me was the teacher’s personal hobby — of finding typos in newspapers and publications and then mailing them into the publishers. You know, his lover says, “Why don’t you find a better hobby?” — and most people, including probably the publications themselves and society at large, wouldn’t find his habit to be all that useful. But it’s ultimately what allows him to have the realization that saves him in the end. I really liked that inverse — that the individual who’s paying attention and following their own way can have realizations that are ultimately very meaningful.
I was really impressed by how smoothly Monster seems to straddle two genres. The first and second chapters unfold almost like a mystery thriller before the third act transitions into a tone and mode of storytelling more familiar to your delicate dramas. It wasn’t until after I finished watching the film that I fully appreciated how effortlessly you pulled that off.
This was one of the things that I was most intrigued by, and worried about, when I accepted the project. The first two-thirds have mystery and suspense elements, which are things I hadn’t previously explored cinematically to his extent. In the first thirty minutes or so, as we’re following the mother, we need to feel how unsettling her experience is — that something is happening but we don’t quite know what it is. I knew this had to engross the viewer and pull them into the story, and that’s very different from the many films I have made previously, which are more slice of life. It was a challenge for me, so I’m glad to hear what you said.
I was hoping we could also talk a little about Ryuichi Sakamoto. I don’t know the nature of your relationship with him, but my condolences on the loss of your colleague, as well as perhaps a friend.
Well, it was not like we were close friends. He was somebody that I had always admired from afar — his words, his creativity. I always looked up to him and respected him like a much older artistic brother. He wasn’t in the best of health, as you know. He was having difficulties with his speech, so during the making of this film we communicated mostly by email. He saw the film and he really liked it. He said it would be difficult for him to write the whole score. He said something like, “The film has conjured in me some images, so let me try a few things.” He finished two new pieces of music for the film and I also used two tracks from his last album, 12, which came out last December. And during editing, I was using three of his earlier songs as temp music, and I eventually got permission to use those in the film too. Of course, I’m very sad about this loss, but I’m very proud that I got to work with him.
One of the most moving scenes in the whole film for me was the small sequence that centers on music. We experience it in all three episodes, from three different perspectives. Initially, it’s not so noticeable; it just sounds like kids in the school practicing some horn instruments. But in the final chapter, we find out it was the protagonist attempting to play the trombone for the first time, and it comes with a message of sorts. The principal is telling him to take all of his hurt and confusion and to blow it away through the instrument — essentially, to make music with it. The way you place this dissonant piece of sound within the film — in such an initially conspicuous but meaningful way — that all felt very Sakamoto-esque. It’s also a rather lovely statement about the power of music. Would it be a stretch to interpret this as a kind of tribute to him?
Well, that scene existed before his involvement in the film. But if Ryuchi Sakamoto had declined my offer to work on this film, I was going to make the movie without any music or score at all. That’s how committed I was to having his music for this film. But I do feel the same way about that scene — how it synchronizes with Sakamoto and his music. When I sent him the edit, the first thing he mentioned in his feedback was how much he liked that scene in the music room. He complimented me on it, and said, “The music I write will not interfere with the resonance of the music we hear in that scene.” He said he didn’t think we should have any additional score around that sequence. I think the emotion and the message that comes with that small scene was something he felt very strongly.