NYAFF Review: Monsters Club


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

I don’t know what it is, but over the last year or so I’ve wanted to try living off the grid. Nothing too extreme, but maybe I’d just hole up in a cabin in Maine somewhere so I can read, write, and get away from the frustrations and grind of daily life. There might be a comfort in that sort of isolation, but I imagine there would eventually be a kind of madness that takes hold as well.

In Monsters Club, there’s a bit of that, but the self-imposed exile from modern society has a different flavor. It’s partly a Unabomber tale (let me be clear: I wouldn’t live off the grid to be a terrorist), but it’s also a story about alienation, loneliness, and absolute solitude. The main character doesn’t just feel dehumanized because of the bustle of daily life, he feels detached from what it is to be a person.

Oh, and there are ghosts.

MONSTERS CLUB trailer | Festival 2011

Monsters Club (Monsutâzu Kurabu | モンスターズクラブ)
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Rating: NR
Country: Japan

In the first 10 or so minutes of Monsters Club we get a feel for its slow burn rhythms. Ryoichi Kakiuchi (Eita) is our Unabomber figure. He lives in his cabin out in woods and constructs a mail bomb as the snow falls outside. We watch the bomb travel to its destination, though from the bomb’s point of view. It’s followed by what can only be considered Ryoichi’s Manifesto. It’s been years since I read the Unabomber Manifesto, but I believe the tenor is the same: daily life turns us into mediocre drones unable to pursue what really matters to us.

There’s something meditative and poetic to the imagery of Monsters Club. Writer/director Toshiaki Toyoda supposedly shot the entire film in two weeks without a script, which I find rather fascinating. For all of its lingering and smoldering and silences, there’s a certain tightness to Monsters Club. The dialogue and visuals seem well considered and graceful rather than slapdash, the latter often a sign of films done on the fly. This might have to do with its extremely short run time of 71 minutes. It feels packed, and becomes somewhat stunning once ghosts from Ryoichi’s past come to visit. The most striking may be the ghost that looks like a meringue in clown make-up.

I’m wondering if Monsters Club could have said more about the situation it presents. I don’t mean that the the movie could have been longer, but that it would have drawn a deeper and more resonant conclusion about human endeavor and isolation. The movie expresses its righteous disdain for the erosive effects of the rat race, it shows how this alienation can be brought to an extreme, and it even shows how it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from the rest of the world. But then again, what distinguishes any broad social statement — whether it’s a terrorist manifesto or an essay like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden — is its extra, intangible, personal expression about the world at large, and maybe that’s what doesn’t quite come through in Monsters Club. Maybe it’s that to live alone dissolves us into nothing just as living among others does, but maybe I’m missing what else it’s trying to say, because I think that it’s trying to say more.

Central to the film is a poem or two by Kenji Miyazawa, and I wonder if that’s where the additional statement is meant to come through. The other day I was talking with D.B. Burroughs of Unseen Films about Monsters Club, and he mentioned that one of his contributors really hooked into the movie because of the Miyazawa poetry. I’m not familiar with Miyazawa’s work, but one poem gets recited in the movie at a crucial point, and it’s one of those sublime moments where words and images join in an unexpected and remarkable way.

There’s some memorable music in Monsters Club as well, courtesy of Toshiyuki Terui, which reminds me a lot of the work of Dirty Three and its frontman Warren Ellis (no, not that Warren Ellis). It helps convey the underlying sadness of Ryoichi’s past. Loneliness is a sad state, especially when it’s self-imposed loneliness, and maybe the most audacious thing about Monsters Club is that it allows us to sympathize with a terrorist bomber. At its heart, his reasons for destruction are the same reasons regular people feel frustrated, but normal people usually find solace in their friends and loved ones. Ryoichi doesn’t want to have anyone in his life or to participate in any part of the world, but he really has no choice. Could be that it’s better to be a madman among the frustrated rather than a madman alone.

It’s such a brief movie, but I think Monsters Club may stick with me a while since it’s so haunting. There’s imagery that’s potent and expresses frustration and isolation so well. While I probably don’t have enough knowledge of Miyazawa to see how deep it digs its subtext, Monsters Club leaves an odd mark in my mind; my mind may be haunted. Maybe I’ll rethink that thing about Maine.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: I went into Monsters Club expecting to hate it. The film’s description called it polarizing (and I usually fall on the negative side of the spectrum), but my curiosity got the better of me. I had to know what exactly a Japanese art film based on the story of the Unabomber would be. As I was watching it, I realized that I didn’t hate it, but knew that I didn’t like it either. It’s a quintessential art film. Basically nothing happens, and most of the things that do are entirely in the protagonist’s head. But in the last few minutes, something clicked. It was pretty clear early on that the story is not about the Unabomber at all; it’s a ghost story. A ghost story where the ghost looks like it’s covered in coconut cake. I don’t know why or how, but when the film ended, I realized that I had liked it. Something about those last few minutes struck me and convinced me that the movie was worth seeing. 65 – Decent

[Monsters Club will be screening at The Japan Society Sunday, July 15th at 6:00 PM. Writer/director Toshiaki Toyoda will be in attendance.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.