Kaibutsu (translated as “Monster” in English) is a beautifully crafted and intricately narrated film that follows a three-act structure. The audience is introduced to the story through the eyes of three main characters: Saori Mugino (Minato’s mother, played by Sakura Andō), Michitoshi Hori (the schoolteacher, played by Eita Nagayama), and Minato Mugino (one of the protagonists, played by Sōya Kurokawa), along with Minato’s classmate Yori Hoshikawa (played by Hinata Hiiragi). Yori’s perspective is deliberately concealed, adding a sense of suspense and leaving room for different interpretations.

The film’s major success lies in its repeated narratives and genre switch, which are aesthetically mediated by the use of natural elements and landscapes. These elements shape the characters’ actions, as well as the affective scripts, beliefs, and desires in our encounter with the film itself. Reading through the lens of feminist writings, I suggest that Kaibutsu evokes a queer sensation of disorientation and reorientation (Ahmed, 2006), — a journey from losing one’s bearings to turning — finding new directions.

Such a process of reorientation occurs in two ways. Firstly, having oscillated between the two narratives of “monster” (kaibutsu/bakemono), the protagonists seek “reincarnation” by transforming malicious frames of identification. Secondly, the film moves the audience through evoking a sense of reorientation. As we approach the film’s ending, we find ourselves immersed in a stormy landscape and its elevating atmospheres, with the potential to shift our initial expectations — a cinematic effect akin to that of “reincarnation.”

Burst into Flames

At the film’s outset, our attention is immediately captivated by a raging fire. The building fire similarly captures the gaze of Saori and her son, Minato, as they enjoy ice lolly on the balcony. Out of the blue, we hear Minato mentioning an experiment with 'pig brains’. Thereafter, through mundane details like missing shoes and a bottle of muddy water, the film vividly portrays the falling apart of the Mugino family. These details hint at the absence of the father (due to death) and the growing distance between the mother and son.

From Saori’s viewpoint, the focus is on the crisis of reproducing desires within the family line, “how family love requires following a certain direction, or even having a certain orientation” (Ahmed, 2006: 73). In subsequent everyday scenes, we witness Saori (whether consciously or not) shaping her son's desire to identify with the father (nonetheless, an idealised image) — growing up “normally” through aligning with the heteronormative family. Flashbacks also unveil seemingly innocuous games (such as ‘walking along the white line’) and other casual conversations, blended with memories and aspirations of the family. 

Pressures to inherit this line come to the forefront, when Minato suddenly jumps out of the car, resulting in an injury. While we are told that Minato was uncertain about his father’s ‘reincarnation,’ the car accident also hints at the obstacles of reproducing the family's identity trajectories. On their way home from the hospital, Saori notices Minato's unusual behaviour. After questioning him, she concludes that 'Mr. Hori (Minato’s class teacher) has bullied Minato.’ This prompts her to file complaints against the school. At this stage, the reasons behind Minato’s injury remain shrouded in mystery. With hindsight, however, it becomes evident that Saori struggles to understand the nature of the incident or see her son in his true colors.

A Line of Escape

The second act retells the story from Mr, Hori’s perspective, adding several details to suggest that he was wronged. From his viewpoint (initially also a bystander of the fire), even though he had made earnest efforts to resolve conflicts among his students and maintain the "peaceful" order of the classroom, Mr. Hori gradually became drawn into the murky terrain of bullying, caught between the students, parents, and the school. He was made a scapegoat, almost driven to a dead end. On the school rooftop, Mr. Hori, now suspended and desolate, wearing only one shoe (indicating he’s in a similar difficult situation as Minato and Yori), contemplated suicide but was deterred by a strange sound emanating from the music room… 

Through repeated narratives, we may distance ourselves from our emotional identification with Saori, and begin to understand that the events depicted are more intricate and opaque than they initially appeared. Meanwhile, Mr. Hori's actions reveal that on one hand, the school serves as a place to reproduce gender and heterosexual norms (as seen in the P.E. lesson scene), but on the other hand, adults seem to be utterly powerless to navigate the social reality woven by children — they can only observe and “repair” the aftermath traces. Amidst the children's daily pretending, lies, and evasions, the events and relationships of bullying may have subtly escaped adults’ notice. Later on, it is only Mr. Hori who accidentally deciphers the coded language of the two protagonists and, during a typhoon, searches for the missing children with Saori. 

The third act finally leads us into the children’s lifeworlds and fantasies. Through Minato’s perspective and his movement through houses, neighborhoods, the school, and the abandoned train station, we gain a deeper understanding of the context of the bullying incident. Yori, Minato’s classmate, faces abuse and bullying at home and school, because of his alleged effeminate disposition. While Yori’s homophobic father believes that his son needs to be 'straightened up,’ thus labeling him as bakemono (another word translated as “monster” in English) with a 'pig brain’, Yori’s other classmates also view him as an alien outsider, constantly harassing him and playing nasty pranks.

Amidst social pressures and hostilities, Minato and Yori became companions, hiding together and establishing a secret base in an abandoned train station. It was a place where they could rest, play, and seek refuge. In stark contrast to their defensive comportments and stiff postures at home, they can freely be themselves within their sanctuary. It's only at this point that we finally discover the origin of the term kaibutsu, which arises from fictional games and coded communication between the protagonists. Especially during the poker game, the children interact and experiment with alternative forms of imagination, briefly escaping from the social constraints of family and school. It allows them to explore novel ways of nurturing relationships and envisioning their futures.

Yet their idyllic bonding is short-lived. The intimate and safe space Minato and Yori shared appears almost like a fantasy (indeed, the train carriage scene set was inspired by Kenji Miyazawa’s fairy tale Night on the Galactic Railroad), but it began to turn sour due to conflicts. Minato grapples with an existential crisis under increasing pressure, while  Yori's imminent relocation, coupled with a moment of transgressive intimacies, creates a fracture in their companionship. At this point, the film is imbued with an unsettling, tragic atmosphere as we follow Minato to Yori's doorstep and witness him being forcibly dragged back into his home.

Elements, Landscapes and Atmospheres

The director choreographs various elements — wind, fire, water, and earth — not merely as backdrops against which characters interact, but also as components that form the affective fields and interpretive frames within the film. The element of fire, symbolized and perceived as an outburst of violence and danger within the city, weaves its presence through the building fire, the lighter, as well as thoughtless labelings and bitter accusations. As different storyline unfold, we see how coded messages, excuses, rumors, and blame accumulate like firewood and fuel, eventually leading to a fatal explosion — the fire almost engulfs every character, compelling them to make (possibly unsuccessful) ethical responses.  

The element of water, materialized in the film as hot water in the bathtub, water in glasses, and the overflowing river, serves a dual purpose. It acts as a “cleansing agent”, disciplining and punishing the body, while also making visible unbearable grief and sorrow—an unruly excess and overflow of affects. In addition, the omnipresent element of wind is revealed through the sounds of Yori and Minato’s instruments, exposing their concealed wishes and inexpressible emotions. As for earth, beyond implying themes of death, burial, and regeneration, its textures are also embodied in the children’s running gaits, showing their intimate connection and affinity with the natural world. As Lury (2010) suggests: 

The children are not positioned outside a world upon which they may act and self-consciously transform themselves; instead they inhabit an open world in which they are part of the various processes – the gradual evolution of the land (mud, mountains, water), the changes to the climate, the passing of the seasons or the blowing of the wind – that make up their environment. (Lury, 2010: 289)

This state of ontological openness sharply contrasts with the closed-thinking world within family and school settings, where children are expected to adhere to gendered orientations and affective scripts. Furthermore, binary gender frames are often playfully mimicked by children in these environments. Amid the uncertain and conflict-ridden ecology of daily life, queerness are easily stifled, and any vulnerability displayed to others becomes a potentially fatal  “weakness” that may be preyed upon. Individuals appear to feel the necessity to armor up — all but suggesting a pervasive atmosphere of fear and the urge for self-preservation (or sacrifice for “the greater good”, in Mr. Hori’s case).

Closing Moments, Open Endings

Later on, we see how the bodies of Minato and Yori are gradually torn apart by spiraling suspicions, doubts and fear. To everyone’s surprise, a twist occurs during Minato’s encounter with the school principal (played by Yûko Tanaka), in which the two communicate affection with discordant notes. These brief moments significantly change Minato’s decisions: on the day the typhoon arrives, Minato visits and finds Yori (who is covered in scars and lying agonizingly in the bathtub) and invites him to “board the train.”

At this point, it is worth noting that the film undergoes a genre switch (Wall, 2020), which disrupts the already-established perceptions and expectations associated with the detective-mystery genre. Instead, the story fully turns itself towards a poetic, almost fairy-tale-like ending. In the words of Screenwriter Sakamoto Yuji: “As the film approaches its ending, its narrativity gradually dissipates into thin air” (Kaibutsu film Booklet: 13). We may no longer be preoccupied with the retrospective question of "who is the culprit in the crime?” But rather, we re-engage with the ongoing events within the children's relationship.

A note of optimism is detected as we hear the heavy wind howls. Here and now, the children’s earlier anxieties about the inevitability of growing up are momentarily set aside. This suspension becomes particularly evident when compared to a previous scene where they observed a passing train in the distance. After the typhoon (which the children refer to as “the Big Crunch”) has gone, Minato and Yori emerge from the muddy underground sewer, metaphorically completed the act of “reincarnation” (signifying a new beginning in their lives). So, how do these queer elements in Sakamoto’s script intersect with the familiar themes of growth and inheritance in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films? It’s worth considering Sara Ahmed’s proposition: 

Inheritance does not always hold things in place but instead keeps open the space for new arrivals, for new objects, which have their own horizons. If inheritance means to receive and to possess, then it might also open up a gap between reception and possession. (Ahmed, 2006: 153) 

From a tilted, disorienting perspective, the camera follows closely behind Minato and Yori, running on a craggy grassy plain, without looking back, heading towards the unfenced railway tracks in the distance. As Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Aqua begins to play, the film gradually fades into darkness. The closing moments are highly emotive, open-ended, conveying a sense that the timelessness and immediacy of childhood seem to stretch indefinitely. 

The film leaves the audience with a lingering charm. We witness a playful mode of existence in which bodies are used and aligned — departing from the movements envisioned by institutions like family or school, thus “creating new lines and textures in the ways in which things are arranged” (Ahmed, 2006: 9). In a rugged landscape drenched by rain and wind, Minato and Yori appear more affirmative, embracing their queer selves and the “uncertainty about which way to turn” (Ahmed, 2006: 7).  

Nevertheless, the ultimate destination for the children remains a mystery. It is unclear whether, as Minato and Yori return from the dreamlike landscape to the more confined worlds of school and family, they will be able to show resilience, withstand malevolence, and repair the fractures that have emerged in their intimate or distant relationships. This uncertainty underscores the challenges they may face in reconciling their experiences and identities. Or, we could instead interpret the children’s affirmative postures of running as an embodiment of the Koreeda’s blessing and hope — as if some lives can thrive only in concealment. 

An ethical tension remains, too: can we, the audience, reorient ourselves through Kaibutsu’s cinematic device? In other words, confronted with the turmoil of harm and uncertainty, can we also endure malevolence and demonstrate kindness towards one another?

READ NEXT: ‘Past Lives’ Meditates on the Before and the After

TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to follow our Facebook.