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‘Monster’ Director Kore-eda Hirokazu on Working With Composer Sakamoto Ryuichi on One of His Last Musical Compositions

Kore-eda Hirokazu returns to Japan for his latest film “Monster,” which poses this question to audiences: “Who really is the monster?” While location scouting, the filmmaker was looking down at a lake, dark and almost black, and “I thought of Sakamoto Ryuichi music. He was the only person who could do the music for this film.”

It would mark the first time in years that the legendary composer behind “The Last Emperor” and “The Revenant” had worked on a Japanese title

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The film which screened at the Toronto Film Festival, opens with Minato, played by Kurokawa Soya, an 11-year-old fifth grader who watches a burning building from afar. Kore-eda returns to this sequence three times, each from a different perspective. Is young Minato the monster? Or is it Mr. Hori (Nahayama Eita), the schoolteacher, or Minato’s mother, Saori (Ando Sakura)? The plot twists and turns in each retelling, as it’s revealed Minato has feelings for his classmate and friend Yori (Hiiragi Hinata) and he doesn’t quite know how to handle them.

Kore-eda hoped a collaboration would happen after an earlier opportunity to work together over a decade ago fell through. He penned a letter to Sakamoto, who said yes. However, Sakamoto, who died earlier this year, said he didn’t have the strength to write the music for an entire score.

Sakamoto contributed music for two scenes in the film, including an important scene with Saori as she confronts Mr. Hori on insulting and hitting the children at school. Sakamoto’s music underscores that moment. He also wrote the end cue. Unable to give him a full composition, Sakamoto gave the director access to use music from his last solo album “12.” “He is such a unique talent,” Kore-eda says.

Aside from the music, casting his two young protagonists was key. Of his casting process, Kore-eda says, “I went through so many auditions. As for what I’m looking for, it’s who I’m drawn to who I want to work with and who I want to film.” The audition process narrowed his search down to eight children who came in to play various roles. Hinata and Soya “really stood out,” he says.

Once he had found his leading teens, who are central to the coming-of-age tale, Kore-eda got together with them six months before filming. Of the bonding process, he says, “We would have rehearsals or play soccer. Sometimes, we’d have meals together.”

In working with them, he took a different approach to working with the boys. “In the past, I’d give them their lines and their personalities and vocabulary would create the dialogue. In this case, there was a script and they had to stick to that.” He continues, “So, for me, it was about looking at the emotional shifts within the children that became important.”

Kore-eda worked closely with screenwriter Yuji Sakamoto. When Kore-eda came on board, Yuji didn’t give him a full script, but the idea to tell the burning building three different times from different perspectives was already in the first outline. Says Kore-eda, “He gave me a plot outline and from there we worked on that script for three and a half years.”

With the boys’ casting, Yuji and Kore-eda worked together to evolve the script with the boy’s interaction in mind.

As for the interaction and friendship between Minato and Yori, Kore-eda says he wanted to show a contrast between the boys when they’re with adults and when they’re together. When they’re around their parents or even in school, Kore-eda wanted to show an oppressive world. “They couldn’t be themselves at home and school.”

Their freedom comes when the boys are together in nature and away from home or school. The natural environment, when they’re playing outside, walking and even playing is lit by sunshine and vibrancy: “That’s where they can be themselves and be true to who they are.”

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