Monster (2023) was one of the films that all of us at Team FC watched at last year’s Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and the ending left us as a house divided. The final scene of Monster sees its two adorable protagonists, Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) and Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), making their way out at the end of a terrible storm and running into bright sunshine. Is this a sign that the boys survived or that they’re in the afterlife? Read on to find out.
When single mother Saori (Sakura Andō) suspects her son Minato is being bullied by his homeroom teacher, she approaches the school with her complaint. The principal hears Saori out impassively. Saori is appalled by the school’s unwillingness to punish the teacher, who lashes out with an accusation of his own. He alleges Minato is a bully and has been terrorising Yori, another student who is often teased for being girly. Rattled, Saori finds out where Yori lives and visits him, hoping to figure out whether there’s any basis to the teacher’s suspicions about Minato. Yori welcomes Saori and although his behaviour is a little odd, he’s also charming and clearly very fond of Minato.
Monster shows us how much Saori has misread the situation when director Hirokazu Kore-eda brings in the perspective of Minato and Yori’s teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama). Hori suspects Minato, but finds himself in a terrible situation when the school asks him to resign.
As Kore-eda shows us the incidents of and characters in Monster from different points of view, it becomes clear that no one is exactly how they seem. In the middle of all the façades and misunderstandings, the most heartwarming relationship is the one that Minato and Yori share. We realise Minato has actually been Yori’s protector in school and that at home, Yori lives with an alcoholic, abusive father who is intent upon “curing” the boy of his queerness.
As a terrible storm erupts in Minato and Yori’s hometown, the two boys steal away to the derelict railcar where they’ve been meeting in the past. Meanwhile, Hori, who has realised the truth of Minato and Yori’s relationship, and Saori go out looking for the boys. When they arrive at the abandoned train tunnel where the railcar is, the place has been ravaged by rain and the boys aren’t there.
Minato and Yori share a tender friendship that is eventually perceived as queer love. Kore-eda doesn’t overlay any sexual interpretation onto their relationship, but at the same time, it’s also clear that the two boys share a bond that is more intense than the average friendship. After dropping relatively subtle hints, Kore-eda eventually uses Hori to communicate the grand reveal. The teacher, who has been shown as kind and attentive, realises Yori has been spelling out Minato’s name in his homework. It’s a clue that helps him to understand just how deeply attached the two boys are to one another.
At another point, Minato is visibly distressed by his feelings for Yori, which he feels make him an unworthy son to his father, hinting at how homophobia leaches into a child’s imagination even if nothing is directly said to him on the subject. Minato and Yori’s connection is one of innocence, of smiles exchanged during class, and doing crafts in their safe haven — a refuge where they can exist without the fear that permeates their daily lives, particularly Yori’s who lives with an abusive father and is repeatedly targeted for appearing effeminate.
Things come to a head when a devastating storm hits the city, and both kids go missing. Minato’s mother and teacher locate the abandoned train compartment that served as Minato and Yori’s safe haven, only to discover that the boys are not there. The railcar is almost buried in mud and when they’re able to get inside, all they find is Minato’s poncho.
The third act of the film rewinds to reveal how Yori and Minato got away from Yori’s abusive household and ended up in their secret oasis in the woods. When the storm abates, the two boys crawl out of the railcar, emerging on the other side. The ground is wet, the boys are streaked with mud, and the trees around them have been uprooted, but the sun is finally out. Yori asks if they have been reborn. Minato replies that he feels they’re the same as they were. The two of them, radiating joy, run into the sunlight that becomes brighter and brighter, eventually turning almost the entire screen white. The film’s final scene shows Minato and Yori running through a sunny landscape. Neither the boys nor the landscape bears any trace of the storm.
In Monster, director Hirokazu Kore-eda sets up a narrative pattern in which he sets us up to make the worst assumptions, before turning the tables on the viewer. We are shown the same set of events from three different perspectives, which serve to contextualise what is unfolding and reveals how easy it is to misread a situation. Kore-eda also uses these multiple perspectives to subtly indicate prejudice and our own impulse to make cynical presumptions. Monster begins with Minato’s mother’s perspective, who is convinced Minato is being bullied by a teacher in school and consequently, so is the viewer. Yet when shown the perspective of the teacher, we realise he is kind and the opposite of a bully. The third perspective is Minato’s son, which is the one that ensures all the pieces of the puzzle finally fall in place and the blindspots are addressed. Considering the pattern of the film, are the final scenes of Monster from Minato’s perspective? Or maybe they’re Yori’s?
Kore-eda seems to lean towards symbolism that suggests the two boys don’t survive the storm. However, even if you choose to interpret the ending to mean the two boys run away from home, Monster remains bleak in its worldview despite the sunny warmth of its visuals. As is evident from the experiences of Yori, the teacher who is accused of bullying, and also the school principal who has lost her grandchild in an accident, we live in a society that will not hesitate to see the monster in innocent people. For Yori, Minato and their forbidden love, the only possibility of happiness and hope seems to be in leaving everything behind.