You were always normal: a retrospective using the 2023 film “Monster”


Tiger Media Network

BY John Carter Jr

This review contains spoilers for Monster By Hirokazu Kore-eda and is based on the YouTube English sub version.

“You lie there, your cranium against the door underneath the sink. Your peepers are being drained of little vermilion expressions of sadness.” This was the opening line to a short story I had written seven years ago in my creative writing class. It was during my senior year of high school, my teacher noted that the word peepers was a bit silly. However, she still praised the story and saw who I was through my words. The story was of a person who (after being outed) is bullied but finds friends yet is beaten up when they get home. This second-person story was based on my experiences being LGBTQ and acted as my coming out. 

Since then I have gone on to write many reviews, research papers, essays, and creative content during my time at Fort Hays State University and for Tiger Media Network in particular. I have interviewed some of my favorite stars and content creators, written articles on not only campus events but on media through my Streaming Wars series. I have created radio shows, completed literature reviews, and of course, film reviews. I have written over 100 reviews during my time at TMN on video games, music, and films, but it was the last category of media that truly helped me develop my writing skills. Through my film reviews, I have touched upon my experiences, feelings, and learned lessons. In my review of “Paranorman,” we discussed taking responsibility for our actions. For “Insidious 3” we discussed finding courage (and of course the legend Lin Shaye), in “Death Note” it was Friendship; the goodness in people’s hearts in “Tokyo Godfathers,” and in “Pulse” we discussed digital anonymity and the desire to truly connect. Through “FLCL” we talked about swinging the bat to move forward in life, and in spite of the meaninglessness in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” we discussed what we think matters and the list goes on. My time working on my bachelor’s degree is almost up, so before my last review as an undergraduate student, I’d like to take a look back at the lessons I learned. In this penultimate review, we will examine Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Monster,” also known as (怪物) “Kaibutsu.”

The hostess bar fire

After watching and reviewing the masterpiece “Nobody Knows” directed by Kore-eda I began watching other entries in his filmography. During spring break, I had the opportunity to watch his 2023 release, “Monster,” and I have watched it three times now. The film stars Sakura Andō as Saori Mugino (Minato’s mother), Eita Nagayama as Michitoshi Hori (Minato and Yori’s homeroom teacher) Sōya Kurokawa as Minato Mugino, Hinata Hiiragi as Yori Hoshikawa, Shidō Nakamura as Kiyotaka Hoshikawa (Yori’s father) and Yūko Tanaka as Makiko Fushimi (the school principal). The film’s story is told from three different perspectives. Saori, Hori sensei, and Minato each have their own section. The principal has a few moments separated from these three perspectives as well as being present in all of them. The film is the story of each of these perspectives as we navigate the claims of verbal and physical abuse made by a student towards their homeroom teacher with a mother who wants to get to the bottom of it and a school trying to circumvent the potential fallout. In order to understand the lessons presented in this film we will examine it in relation to other films, its key moments, and how the people in this film parallel with real life.   

Saori is concerned about her son’s comments and recent behavior.

Early in the film we hear Minato ask his mother a strange question, he asks her if a human is transplanted a pig’s brain are they still human? He said he was asked this by his teacher. We discover later that it wasn’t his teacher who proposed this question but rather a curious response to things discussed with his friend (the friend Minato refused to acknowledge in front of others). In my review of “I Told Sunset About You,” I discuss the consequences of deviation from what is expected or accepted.

“The ways the world tells us to be and its expectation that we abide by that or we are wrong or gross or othered. We may not even realize who we are because we abide by what the world says is right, and how things are supposed to be”

As the film goes on, we start to peel back the struggle a repressed person might endure through Minato. Some people don’t figure themselves out by the time their school years are over. A lot struggle with the exploration of their identity to a painful extent, for themselves, those who see through them, and for those who love them. Massively influential demoralizing beliefs about oneself can come from anyone. Friends, family,  teachers, and even strangers can have some kind of influence on the way we interpret the world. We start to understand just how much this “pig brain” comment has affected these boys and influences them as the film goes on. We start to understand Minato’s reason for thinking he can never be happy.  

Minato meets Yori with his father, who claims he has been “cured.”

Our parents are not only our first teachers but are those who should be our first protectors. Through “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” we are taught something children need to know, it is something Mr. Rogers always said “People can like you exactly as you are.” It is our parents who are to be our first advocates and when they reject us it can be an impactful blow. It was the ending of that review that is most pertinent to the discussion on this film.

 “It was that unaccepting parent who realized he was the one who needed to change, that he was wrong to expect his child to accomplish the impossible task of changing who he is… This film teaches us even more than that. People can love you exactly as you are, no strings attached.” 

Yori, in all his overall and turtleneck fashions, had been told by his father that he was a monster diseased with a pig’s brain yet his father claimed he could cure him. He further told Yori that if he was cured, his mother would come back. This insidious verbal abuse disguised as love by Yori’s father affects not only how he sees himself but also Minato. We see this when Minato explores himself and, at first truly questions whether or not Yori has a pig brain. When Minato asks him about it, Yori even makes a snorting sound. The verbally abusive treatment along with the physical beatings Yori endures and the bullying he receives at school affect both boys. For Yori, he was subjected to abuse and bullying. As for Minato, at first, he was a witness to the bullying. Minato watched, whether that was as a bystander who felt guilty or fearful. The film demonstrates that child abuse of any kind can have a lasting impact on a child’s well-being and an influence on their choices in the future. However, parents who don’t fit the criteria of being abusive can still have a lasting impact whether good or bad. 

Yori pets Minato’s hair.

Minato struggles to understand himself and subsequently accepts himself, upon the realization that he and Yori are more alike than he initially thought he at first seems frustrated and scared. Who could blame this kid, though? Like Yori, he internalizes the things his parents say. Later in the film, while going to hang out at their hiding place, Minato and Yori have a conversation as to why the latter knows the names of flowers. 

Minato says “Mom said girls prefer boys who don’t know flower names.” Yori responds “…that boys who know flower names are creepy.” Minato says “…she wouldn’t say creepy. She is a mom.” Yori says in response, “You’re right.” He goes into the tunnel and says “Girls don’t like boys who are scared of the dark.” 

After hearing this, he hurries ahead. Minato who, unlike Yori, was not in the tunnel yet. Minato’s mother, like Yori’s father, is amongst the first people to inform him about the world. From their perspective, they influence their children with all the biases, experiences, and perspectives that have influenced them. Some have compared this film to Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” This comparison is far off. That film tells three different narratives, ones that are deliberately manipulated to convince. This film looks at the different perspectives of people who live different lives and have different journeys. Each individual’s view of the events is only a partial image riddled with assumptions, rumors, and biases, not to mention the moments where characters commit the fundamental attribution error.   

Saori, Hori sensei, Yori’s father, and the principal all had lived long before the children they were charged with taking care of. The perspectives these people take on are formed by the lives they have led and continue to live. The film is not just about the different perspectives shown in the film, but also about the perspectives of others not shown and of the lives lived outside the bounds of this film. Minato states that his mother wouldn’t say boys who know the names of flowers are creepy because she is a mom. Yet, from what we see with Yori’s relationship with his parents, he doesn’t have that same assumption or assuredness regarding a parent’s best intentions for him. 

Hori Sensei makes comments that stick with the boys.

Comments to Minato about him one day having a family by his mother, the comment about boys who know the names of flowers, and having fun enjoying a drag queen on TV, could all be very confusing when trying to discern what is right or wrong. This is especially so when you have such a good relationship with your mother, yet some of her actions echo the words or choices of some of his worst sources of fear. However, it isn’t just your parents who influence you and confound you.     

In “The Sword In The Stone” we discussed our teachers and just how much they move or affect us.

“This presentation of the relationships we can have with our teachers represents how defining an adult figure can be to a kid…This is true of people throughout their life journey; everything we learn and the people who teach us those things affect who we are.” 

As mentioned before all the adults in these children’s lives affect them and among the major influences is their Teacher Hori Sensei. Yori, who has an abusive father, and Minato, (like Hori) who lives with his single mother, have fewer men identifying role models than those with different circumstances. Similar to how Minato sees his mother, the boys see Hori in a positive light but his comments akin to “act like a man” or “you call yourself a man” in a gym class carry weight. Especially for these boys who are influenced by experiences of being abused or witnessing it happen or both.

Hori Sensei sees Minato run away as he finds Yori locked in the stall

There are multiple moments throughout the film where Yori endures some kind of abuse or bullying. Being called an “alien” or “girl alien” by kids, or “monster” or “pig brain” by his father, getting pushed around, being locked in bathroom stalls, being beaten (potentially burned) by his father, receiving some kind of water-related abuse by his father, his desk being covered in trash or paint, and being taunted by bullies. Through seeing the bullies’ actions we see Minato internalize the homophobia around him. While he takes Yori’s snacks saying he didn’t think they were dirty, we see other feelings manifest when he tells Yori not to talk to him in front of the class while doing classroom chores. I wrote about the fundamental ideas presented in Andrew Huang’s “Kiss Of The Rabbit God,” examining internalized homophobia and repression.  

“The containment of the feelings of love, desire, and personal homeostasis is impossible to keep up forever, or we perish under the pressure of restriction. It is the most painful personal experience many LGBT people go through.” 

When Minato tells Yori not to talk to him, the latter was petting the former’s hair. Later Minato cuts his hair, evidence of the conflict storming in the boy between the people he likes and what others say about people like him.  

Minato is about to cut his hair.

In many of the instances in which the bullies picked on Yori, Minato acted as a bystander or tried to. Let’s take a look at some of these moments. In Hori’s section, we see Yori on the ground without his shoes on. In Minato’s section, we see the moment with a bit more clarity: Yori has been pushed down by some bullies. While he had just been talking to Yori, Minato ignored him after Yori was pushed down and called an alien. The bully put his arm around Minato’s shoulder as they walked away. Later when we see Yori was locked in a bathroom stall, Hori sensei lets him out but not without seeing Minato run away. It turns out that he saw him in the bathroom before the teacher had arrived, Yori called out for him but he ignored him and ran away.

Minato is afraid of losing Yori but still pushes him away.

Finally, Minato attempts to ignore Yori when the bullies are tossing around a rag he is using to wipe up paint on his desk. However, a girl who was friends with Yori catches the rag and throws it down at Minato in a satisfying way. She probably understood what these boys had between them. Yet still this pushes the boys to both physically fight each other physically. In my review of “Like Grains of Sand” we discuss repression, toxic masculinity, and aggression. However, it is less of a response to one’s own identity and more of a response to the oppression inflicted. 

When they are alone, like many queer people with a closeted loved one, the two boys are very close. Bonding and becoming very close in a green world all their own. Conversations, ponderings, sharing, and happiness. Talking to someone who wants to be there with you specifically is a wonderful experience especially when you want to be there too. These boys have their own scientific ponderings, conversations about people in their lives, just having fun playing, and doing their thing. To choose to spend your precious time with someone you truly have bonded with in such a meaningful way is a beautiful expression of love. We see the pain of losing such expressions, time, and most importantly that person when Yori tells Minato he is going to move at his father’s behest. Minato grasps onto Yori, telling him he doesn’t want him to leave. Yori embraces Minato with a hug, yet while he tries to be affirming in a soft whisper he is pushed by Minato in an internally homophobic panic.

The Principal bestows an important lesson on Minato.

In my review of “Coffee Prince,” I wrote: 

“It very strongly affirms queer people’s reason for repressing themselves when the people around us feel relieved when they think that the queer identity is mutable. It is easier for the individual to attempt to become something else than struggle to be themselves amongst loved ones who might not accept us.” 

For a kid to see bullying, hate, and abuse, it would be incredibly daunting to even consider that you are among those who are discriminated against, let alone stand up to those oppressors yet we must if we ever want to achieve true happiness. We must be able to go after and have our happiness, but it might seem easier to conceal ourselves for the sake of others’ rules, norms, or ideas about how things should be. It might seem easier to try to simply blow away the pains of repression thinking we can endure it. Only ever bystanding, lying, or being real with our closest people in this one place, and that’s if you’re honest with anyone or allow the people who are like you to ever get close. 

Perspective is very important in this film. The principal throughout the film was rumored to have run over her grandchild and we see her trip a kid at a store. We see her talk to her husband, who is in jail, yet we don’t get any confirmation of the details throughout the film. For all we know it could have been her grandchild’s parents who were the cause of death. Her husband doesn’t seem to hold anything against her and bonds over memories about her. She may have accidentally tripped the kid at the store. All of this is to say that the only thing we know is what the Principal said, that she told a lie, and what she told Minato. After Minato admits to lying about Hori sensei, she gives him some words of wisdom. She says gently, after setting him up with a trombone and looking for another instrument… 

“So you told a lie”,  Minato says quietly, seemingly with shame. “I um…I’m not really sure, but I like someone.” she responds, “I see.” He states “I can’t tell anyone so I lie. Cause they’ll know I can never be happy.” Picking up a French horn the principal says “In that case, whatever you can’t tell anyone, blow it away, blow it away,” she says again. He tries to do it using a trombone, and they both try playing the instruments. “But that’s nonsense. If only some people can have it, that’s not happiness. That’s just nonsense. Happiness is something anyone can have,” she says. 

Minato denies Yori’s Father’s claim, asserting he was always normal.

After which they continue to play. It’s easier to be something else and to blow off the pains of oppression than to fix it, to love and accept yourself. Happiness is for everyone, it is not happiness if anyone can’t have it, and it takes courage to see to your happiness regardless of the oncoming pushback.

Performative heteronormativity can be seen in internally prejudiced people. However, as the film goes on, we see growth in Minato. Through “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” we discussed being brave and why we should aspire to be brave in spite of the odds.

“To be brave is not to be void of all fear but to have the willingness to stand up to it. To be brave, to cherish and to love the little time you’ve been given with the people you love, that is the point of living even when it all seems futile.” 

In order to face yourself, accept who that is, and to be open about who you are takes incredible courage. It takes courage to defend your friend even when they are nothing like you. It can be painful when your friends refuse to take action and even more when you like or are like that bystanding friend. Minato finds some courage when he starts throwing stuff around to distract the bullies from being cruel to Yori. However it is right before and after the principal’s advice we see the most growth. When Minato goes directly to Yori’s House, he and his father answer the door. 

Yori claims, “I’m cured of my sickness now,” Minato asks, “Cured of what?” Yori states, “I’m normal now.” Minato defiantly states in front of Yori’s abusive father, “You were always normal.” His father says there is a girl near his grandmother’s house, implying it would be good for him to move. Whatever Yori’s father did to “cure” him not only didn’t work but implies some abusive means. After closing the door on Minato, Yori runs out and apologizes saying that he lied but is quickly dragged back in, we can hear the abuse happening from the outside. 

After his conversation with the principal and motivated by the prospect that they can both be happy, Minato enters Yori’s house, finding him beaten and bruised on his back near his kidneys. The boys escape and prepare for the big crunch as a big storm is coming. An event that has been theorized to be the end and restart of everything that the boys have been discussing throughout the movie. I couldn’t help but relate to the experiences both these boys were enduring. 

Being beaten by an abusive father, being bullied in the bathroom at school, having a best friend who truly understood me but was afraid to be themselves, people not wanting to be seen with me in front of others, wearing cute overalls, being interested in science that my friends have yet to explore, coming up with and expressing my ideas with a friend, writing with a friend, being strange but oddly jaded for such a young age. I just laughed and snapped when Yori responded to Minato, who asked him if he burned down the hostess bar because of his abusive father. Yori coldly says “drinking alcohol is bad for your health.” 

Minato and Yori anticipate the coming of the Big Crunch.

The film makes moments like Yori skipping away after taking the lighter the principal found on the ground and the very opening moments of the film when Yori is watching the fire feel satisfying as it all comes together. The skipping in particular mirrored a younger me who often did the same in middle school. For a moment, I even laughed when Yori ran out of the house right after he said he was “cured” only to admit he lied. Although he knew he was about to be hit, he couldn’t stand the lie. It reminded me of myself, in his defiance and in feeling immediately bad about lying. I felt bad for lying to my best friend about watching the entirety of the Halloween series. I understand these more serious moments especially.

In “Thelma and Louise” we learned about what it means to love another person. 

“Love isn’t romance or sex or carnal desires, and love isn’t simply hanging out with a friend or exchanging what you do with one…Having love for someone is having the desire for them to be happy and safe. Expressions of love are actions made to see those things.” 

While there is no argument that these boys liked each other, the movie demonstrates that true love for another person is understood when you see to it that person is happy and safe. It shows us the motivating reasons we love and that we shouldn’t let fear rule our lives. Anyone can have happiness; anyone telling you to be something you aren’t in order to be happy is the wrong one. It is the shame and trauma inflicted not the kids who endure it who are to blame for the inevitable repercussions or reverberations. In choosing to be together during what they thought was the Big Crunch these boys demonstrate the hope that things can heal, people can come back together or together in the first place, and that happiness comes from having love for others. 

The last line of that short story I wrote all those years ago reads “Love has a queer effect on its first-time receivers, the effect being the washing away of emotions, tied to trauma, sadness, and most importantly loneliness. As you lie there in a small puddle of vermilion expressions, you can’t help but smile. That’s if you’re anything like me that is.” 

I give “Monster” an 11/10 stars for being one of the most impactful films I have been able to experience. Thank you for joining me on this long journey and please look forward to my last review written as an undergraduate student. This review was written to look back, and now I am looking forward to it. Please stay tuned!