By Brad Windhauser.

Kore-eda’s Monster portrays Japanese queer youth forced to carve out a safe space away from their society just to experience moments of joy.”

Kore-eda’s film Monster (Kore-eda, 2023), recently released digitally, demonstrates how Japanese culture, which does not encourage open exploration of queer identities, sets up their queer youth to struggle through their coming-of-age process, challenging their connections with family and peers, forcing them to carve out a safe space away from their society just to experience moments of joy.

The film follows Saori (Sakura Ando), a single mom, struggling to raise her fifth-grade son, Minato (Soya Kurokawa), who has trouble making friends at school. When Minato is seemingly assaulted by his teacher, Mr. Hori (Eita Nagayama), Saori confronts the administration. Receiving an inadequate response from the teacher, the principal Fushimi (Yuko Tanaka), and other members of administration, she investigates what happened in her son’s classroom on her own by asking Minato’s only friend Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), whom he might be bullying.

The film won both the Queer Palm prize at Cannes last year, as well as best screenplay. The well-paced screenplay deserves this honor, and its creative structure, a nod to Kurosawa’s Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950), develops the different points of view on Minato’s behavior and how inadequate the adults’ perceptions and understanding of him and Yori are. As what ends up being the first section’s end demonstrates, during the typhoon bearing down on this Japanese city, Minato disappears, but did he harm himself? The cliffhanger here leaves this to the audience’s imagination, and before the film addresses this, it shifts to Minato’s teacher, Mr. Yori. Through him, the film provides a clearer sense of what is happening in school—though even his point of view, which is presented as being a concerned, invested teacher, is flawed. He sees more of these two boys and their interaction with their peers, but they are two among many, and even he misunderstands how Minato and Yori interact, in part because the crucial moment that leads to physical contact between Hori and Minato. This moment serves as the major plot point that brings Saori’s attention to school, his version lacking context for what Minato is doing when Hori intervenes.

The film’s structure provides the understanding of the ways in which they are misunderstood and the lengths they must go to to build their own community, connections, and a space in which to explore their joy and hide from outside influences looking to hinder who they are.

After a brief exploration of the principal’s point of view, which adds little information to the boys’ story, the film shifts its focus to Minato in the last section to convey the “true” story. Most telling about this section, in terms of what it shows about burgeoning queer feelings, is how the kids themselves don’t understand what they are feeling, though the film’s structure obscures what they don’t understand. In the film’s first section, Minato says and draws about himself that he is a monster, which is framed to be about how he is either inviting being bullied or doing the bullying of Yori. The film later shows how Yori is told this by his problematic father, and believing this about himself, Yori appears to have passed this idea on to Minato. Through the under-informed adult perspective, either or both are “bad kids,” as opposed to kids who have internalized a negative self-image because they queer, which the final section develops.

The film’s structure provides the understanding of the ways in which they are misunderstood and the lengths they must go to to build their own community.”

Although cultural differences might lead a non-Japanese viewer to wonder if being queer is acknowledged in this society, it’s made clear that Queerness is a part of these boys’ world. As with other cultures, classmates accuse Yori of being a girl—their version of saying he’s queer—for not fighting back against them when they vandalize his desk in class before the teacher arrives. Minato, witnessing this, does not feel like he can intervene—he would be also accused of being queer—and since he wants to avoid such accusations, he begins throwing backpacks around the room as a distraction. At this point Mr. Yori enters, and his discipline of Minato comes without understanding what caused the outburst. So, Minato learns that being queer is wrong in his community, and he does not feel he can enlist any adult’s help.

The film does allow them to nurture their connection, but not without effort on their part. When the two boys are told to return instruments to the music room, Minato closes the door behind them—they need privacy if they are to be friendly. When Yori caresses Minato’s head, the camera frames Minato’s hands slowly retreating from the floor—he is confused by the sensation the touch produces in him. He also does not tell Yori, nor does he seem displeased, as the camera stays on his face as Yori continues to touch him. A sound outside breaks the moment, reminding the two boys that they could be seen at any moment. This explains their need and enjoyment of the abandoned train car Yori shows Minato. There, they spend hours over the course of the montage, bonding, enjoying life in ways not shown in other places in the film. However, even there, they must answer to themselves and what they have internalized from society: Yori, from his toxic father, who calls him a monster, and Minato, who when they hug tightly, Minato pulls back, scared of where their touch might lead.

Clearly, Minato embraces his queer feelings, for although we are not shown further intimacy between the boys, after they weather the typhoon in the train car’s safety, they emerge jubilant, and with the sun beaming down on them, run through verdant fields with no clear destination. They may not feel comfortable in society yet, but they have one another. They’ve found happiness as they continue their coming-of-age journey, which this film suggests shares elements with the queer experience across cultures.

Brad Windhauser is a Professor (Teaching/Instruction) in both the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program and the English Department at Temple University. His academic work in film and literature explores how the lives of queer individuals are impacted by their queer identities. His book The Queer Coming of Age Genre is forthcoming from Lexington Books.

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