NOTE: THIS ANIME WAS WATCHED IN ENGLISH DUBBED FORM, AND WILL BE REVIEWED AS SUCH.
What is the measure of a good person? Of a good deed? Of a good life? Is any one life worth more than another? What makes a person a complete monster? Is anyone ever truly irredeemable? And perhaps most distressingly, is there ever a time where it is acceptable to take anothers life?
From 1994-2001, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster worked towards answering all these questions and more. And from April 2004 to September 2005, an Anime adaptation was aired on NTV, and will be the subject of this review. An incredible work of dark, mature fiction that dips its hands into almost every moral dilemma imaginable, Urasawa’s black saga of violence, terror and regret is quite possibly Anime’s greatest counter to anyone who would dismiss the artform as “silly”, “immature” or “generic”.
“…and lo, he will appear in the guise of man…”
But, I am getting ahead of myself. Let us start at the beginning. Note that this section is, by nature of the show, very long, and if you aren’t interested in reading it, skip down to the next boldfaced section title. And before anyone tries to yell at me about spoilers, what I’m about to say is the premise of the whole show, and is easily seen on any website that talks about it.
Doctor Kenzo Tenma (or Kenzou, depending on your translation) is a doctor working at the Eisler Memorial Hospital in Dusseldorf circa the 1980’s. He is a truly kind and idealistic young man, not to mention an almost supernaturally gifted brain surgeon. He has it all; a beautiful fiance (who happens to be the directors daughter), a promotion on the way, and the adoration of all his patients.
But all is not well. See, Tenma is dealing with a deeply political group of people at his workplace, and quite frankly, to them, if you’re not important socially, then your health is unimportant as well. This is really hit home for Tenma as he is confronted by the grieving widow of a man who he was supposed to operate on, but who ended up being pushed aside for a more politically relevant patient. Troubled by this, Tenma seeks solace from his girlfriend Eva Heinemann, only for her to reveal that she shares her fathers ideals, scoffing at his concerns while saying “It’s not like all lives are created equal”.
Later that night, two patients arrive at the hospital. First is a young child named Johan Liebert. Johan has been shot in the head after some undisclosed violence at his house, and is very close to death. Along with Johan is his twin sister Anna, who is fine physically but keeps muttering about “killing”. After the twins, the mayor of Dusseldorf also arrives, suffering some brain-related issues, and although hospital “policy” would demand that Tenma treat the more important mayor, he finally gives into his conscience and treats Johan instead.
Although his moral victory is absolute, with Johans life being spared, the death of the mayor due to less skilled hands brings on a firestorm for Tenma. He is not only demoted by the director, but fearful that he will quit and bring his skills elsewhere, said boss also refuses to write a letter of recommendation for him and orders others not to, making it impossible to get a job at any other hospital and effectively locking Tenma in exhausting grunt work. He becomes a laughing stock to the other doctors, who can’t seem to imagine a doctor choosing to save a child over someone who might increase his standing. Finally, his fiance throws his engagement ring back in his face, sneering the whole time, utterly uninterested in a man who has lost his rank, and abandons him. This sequence is every bit as infuriating to the audience as you would imagine…
Still, Tenma thinks he can survive all this, as at least he is still treating people. And the part about the adoration of his patients hasn’t changed. But when the doctors start trying to use the boy as a publicity stunt, a “Oh, look, we saved a child because we are so kind” trick and actually EXACERBATE his condition, Tenma almost loses it, getting drunk and expressing his rage to the comatose child in an inebriated rant.
A few days later, chaos rocks the hospital. The director and several high ranking doctors die suddenly, leaving no one to make Tenma’s life miserable. This, as you might imagine, seems suspicious to the police, particularly the frighteningly-efficient and almost Terminator-like Inspector Lunge (or Runge, depending on your translation, also, pronounced “loon-gay”) who, despite seeing nothing but connections, cannot do anything due to the complete and utter lack of evidence. In the midst of the chaos, very few people notice that the twins, Johan and Anna, have disappeared…
Fast forward nine years later, and life is comfortable for Tenma. He is now Chief of surgery, and is known all through the town as a doctor of incredible skill and compassion. Still, his coworkers try to set him up with someone, so his life won’t be full of nothing but work. But Tenma is pretty comfortable with his life as is, and simply goes on living.
One day, a known criminal named Adolf Junkers (we’re in Germany, people, remember?) is brought in, having been seriously injured and babbling about a “monster”. Tenma, after helping the man, strikes up a sort of friendship and convinces him to turn over a new leaf. One night, Tenma sees something he thinks would be a fine gift for the man, and decides to bring it to him. However, upon returning to the Hospital, he finds some dead guards and a missing Junkers. Following the trail to a parking garage, Tenma finds Junkers, and much more.
Junkers is terrified beyond any rational thought by a man in the shadows pointing a gun at him. After begging the doctor to help him and revealing that this man is the monster he spoke of, Junkers is shot down with terrifying coldness. The man steps forward and reveals himself to be the boy Tenma saved nine years ago, now grown into a creature of absolute horror. Upon Tenma asking if he too was going to die, Johan says that, since Tenma saved him from death, he sees him almost as a father. As he walks by Tenma, we get a good look at his face; that of a chillingly beautiful creature with terrifyingly dead eyes. Johan walks off into the night. After spending some time debating with himself, Tenma sets out to find him, hoping to correct his mistake by any means necessarry…
“..and he looked as a lamb but spoke as a dragon…”
So, in short, what is Monster? It is a deep, well written and developed character study of the absolute worst that humanity has to offer. It is a tale of one mans quest to erase his greatest mistake, and to come to terms with what he might become in the process. It is a deeply unsettling look at what we all are in the dark, when all our pretenses have been laid bare. It is all these things, plus way more that it would be spoiling to give away.
The show, like any, lives by the tale it tells. Monster is an incredibly dark story, never shying away from the disturbing themes and moral conundrums. Psychological and physical abuse, identity erasure and manipulation, the nature of trauma and the maleability of human morality, the true measure of evil, and all of it related to everyone from the elderly to the prepubescent. Everything considered uncomfortable about human behavior is here on full, horrible display. It is quite telling about the mood, I think, that the story starts with an act of kindness and self sacrifice, and goes horribly wrong from there.
As for pacing, Monster is a masterpiece. This beast of a series is 74 episodes long, with not a single one wasted. Every story detail, every character, all of it working towards the greater purpose of leading us down Urasawa’s dark and troubling road. There is literally no filler in the show, or at least so little as to be unnoticable. This is probably due to the fact that the anime is a VERY close adaptation of the manga, being almost shot for shot in some cases.
However great a story, no tale can be told without its characters, and Monster benefits from one of the strongest casts in recent memory. Starting with our unfortunate hero, Kenzo Tenma. Tenma manages that most difficult of feats by being idealistic, but not stupid, and because of his inherent kindness, we feel for his struggle. Tenmas tale is one of redemption and despair, as he spends his time chasing Johans shadow. He finds himself conflicted by what he must do, but having gazed into the eyes of the creature he unleashed, he can do no less than try to stop him, no matter what he must do.
The rest of the cast are equally three dimensional. Inspector Lunge, who becomes obsessed with the idea of catching Tenma, is a man devoted to his job at the expense of all else. He is machine in every sense of the word except the biological, even down to his method of recalling information (when being spoken to or asked a question, he will do a typing motion with his hand, as if searching for a file. This is nowhere nearly as ridiculous as it sounds). He is an interesting foil, as although he lacks Johans menace or ill intent, he is just as inhuman in an entirely different way.
Numerous other characters become deeply involved in Tenma’s quest, most notably one Wolfgang Grimmer, a journalist with a mysterious past and mental issues of his own who might know more than he is letting on. We also have an abused boy named Dieter, Criminal Pathologist and old classmate of Tenma Rudy Gillen, Psychologist Dr. Reichwein, Johans unfortunate twin Anna and even Tenmas ex Eva. Every single one of them has something to contribute to the story, and every one of them experience well executed character development. Hell, even the robot cop gets boatloads of development.
But the main showcase for the strength of the writing is the titular monster, Johan. Now, I am not prone to fits of hyperbole. Actually, scratch that. I actively hate hyperbole. I find it to be the enemy of intelligent debate or dissertation, and avoid it like the plague in my daily life, unless using it for humorous or ironic purposes. So please understand the weight it carries when I say that Johan Liebert is one of the greatest antagonists I have seen in the history of fiction.
What is it that makes Johan so compelling? It is because, right up until the last episode, you are incapable of discerning his intentions. Johan is not so much a man as he is a force, a shadow to everything good in the world. He is the urge you have to hit someone on the bus. He is the fantasy about acts of violence in the workplace. He is the despaired look on your face at the end of a hard day. He is the voice whispering in your ear as you do something horrible that you know you will regret, but are unable to stop. He is darkness incarnate, a creature born into a man’s body.
You may have noticed that I referred to him as an “antagonist” as opposed to a “villain”. That is because Johan cannot be catagorized so easily. Johan is not evil in the traditional sense. He is a void in the moral fabric of the universe, the antithesis of warmth and compassion. The only way to call Johan evil is if you believe that evil is not so much a thing as it is the hole left by the absence of good, then by that defintion Johan is as pure as evil comes.
You might think that this means that the show is all about him doing awful stuff, but you’re wrong. Johan is actually in less than half of the episodes, if memory serves.When he does appear, it is usually to cause destruction on a deeply personal scale, not mass death or anything like that, but still performing some of the most grotesque actions you can imagine. The annhilation of a life’s work, the unleashing of a murderer on an innocent, the killing of a loved one…
And the people he is doing it to will never know unless he wishes them to. Johan is as charismatic as he is repellant, seeming a kind, gentle soul to those who don’t know better. He is a chameleon, able to be everything to everyone and playing all of them like puppets, while moving and dooming poor souls in his quest for…whatever he wants. In rare cases we get to watch him do it, watch as he twists an otherwise rational and good man or child into something destructive to themselves or others, but most of what we see are the results of his actions, and somehow that makes him infinitely more terrifying.
The Black Beauty
Moving on to the shows production, Monster is high caliber in every sense. Animation is smooth and modest, taking full advantage of Naoki Urasawa’s distinctive character designs. No two characters look the same, and the clear artistry allows all the primary players to be instantly identifiable. That being said, it is not a terribly flashy show, but it doesn’t need to be.
Music is also up to par, with every song fitting it’s situation. I suppose it wasn’t particularly stand out, as there are no tracks I remember off-hand, but perhaps that is because they all enhanced their scenes so well as to be insepperable from their mood, which is really the best achievment a BGM score could want. I have heard that there was a switch between the english and Japanese BGM, but I can’t comment due to a lack of experience.
What is memorable are the opening and closers. The opening “Grain” by Kuniaki Haishima is a deeply forboding piece that sets the mood for the show to come-
-while first ending “For the Love of Life” by David Sylvian might be the second most unsettling Anime ending I have ever heard. The soft, uneven electric screeching in the background combined with Sylvian’s atonal delivery makes for chills every time I hear it.
I said second most unsettling because second ending “Make it Home”, by Fujiko Hemming, takes the cake of just plain off-puttingness.
Her warbling, slightly discordant voice combined with the accoustic guitar in the back and scratchy audio quality makes every viewing of it like a miniature horror flick. Combined with the visuals of the endings, that of drawings taken from a childrens book from hell, makes the endings as memorable as the show itself.
As for the dub actors, VIZ’s team for Monster is top notch, easily up there with the best the english VO industry has to offer. Liam O’ Brien manages to give Tenma all the gravitas necessarry in his big scenes, while making him seem grounded and human in others. Perhaps his greatest achievment is how he makes him sound ever more tired as the show progresses. Richard Epcar has a difficult task in making Lunge sound convincingly emotionless without joining the Borg Collective, a job he performs admirably, although there is the occasional slip up. And Keith Silverstein had it the hardest portraying one of the most unsettling beings in anime. Luckily, for a guy who’s credit list is significantly smaller than the others on the cast, he performs amazingly. He manages to make Johan sound warm and caring in EVERYTHING HE DOES, good and bad. This manages to make scenes with Johan even creepier, as he always sounds like an honest, good person. But underneath his voice, if you strain, you can hear the cold emotionlessness, never letting you forget the monster you see before you.
All supports do their jobs well. Patrick Seitz (also the voice director on the show) as Wolfgang Grimmer has one of the more emotionally complex story arcs, and uses his deep, expressive voice expertly. Among the more ancillary characters, Tara Platt’s Eva and Paul St. Peter’s Dr. Reichwein do their jobs perfectly (especially Tara Platt, who has to make THAT bitch tolerable as she develops into a better person as the story progresses). Some others, like Karen Strassman’s Anna and JB Blanc’s Roberto are performed with complete competence, but for some reason never sounded quite comfortable. Incidental characters run the gamut from excellent to servicable, never seeming bad or hammy, and (generally) resisting overdone accents despite being set in Germany.
“The Abyss Gazes Back”
So is Monster the greatest Anime ever created? I don’t know, but it sure is up there. There is an issue with the ending, which I will give no hint about other than to say people are divided on it(I myself am half and half). Recently, VIZ released the first box set on DVD and it sold horribly, so badly that they won’t even be releasing the rest of the series. So I’m stuck here with my season one DVD and nothing else. Thanks, assholes.
Anyway, many people also seem to agree on it’s quality. It’s ratings (in Japan) were quite high, critical reviews have been ABSURDLY positive, and most famously, Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz has sung its praises with great enthusiasm. There are some who dislike it, but as far as Seinin (Older Male Manga) goes, this is the cream of the crop.
So what do I think? I think I regret not giving myself an “11” on my scale. Monster is an absolute masterpiece in every sense of the word: a tense, enthralling, finely crafted saga. It is deeply frightening, touching, and thought provoking, and has become my standard by which all other anime storytelling is judged. Watch it, love it, debate it, and show it to others who like good storytelling, and especially show that lobotomized mongrel of a friend of yours who says “Oh, all anime is big breasted women and screaming retarded guys” and be ready to watch cognitive dissonance at its finest.
A Masterwork of the Art Form: 10/10
Ever since it first came out I have heard so many great things about this serious, very much like you have stated here. Personally I have attempted to watch it before, but I found the storyline to be too slow paced for my taste at first I don’t think, I ever got past episode 5, which is usually my cut off line for any anime. If the anime is meant to be a close adaption to the original manga, I might just give the manga a shot instead. As I can digest that a little faster and in higher quantities.
Have you done any reviews for Naoki’s 20th/21st Century Boys? The concept of the story while silly, sprung up such a great story. No anime for it to my knowledge but the story was made into 3 Live action movies, which were good but I still feel did no justice to the actual manga.
No, I haven’t seen 20th or 21st, although I definitely want to. Heard it’s his best, and given my high esteem for this one, I’m very interested. Will definitely go manga first, as I am all too familiar with how bad or even “decent” movie adaptations can taint an otherwise great manga…
As for this series, well, yeah it is slow. And believe me I usually can’t stand slow shows. But one must also account for the fact that a story like this must, by nature, take its time. It really doesn’t sink its hooks in until episode 15, maybe I should have mentioned that, but I believe that a rewarding payoff is enough to mitigate a slow start.
But still, if the manga seems appealing, then go for it, as the story is worth experiencing in any form.
Thanks for reading!
Liam O’Brian as a doctor… I’m already interested, but worried too.
You said that only half the series was released on DVD. In that case, did they even have a chance to dub the rest of it?
No, the whole thing was dubbed, and aired on Sci Fi (oh, sorry, “syfy”). But the homerelease has been quietly killed due to bad sales. And it isn’t even the first half! It’s only the first 20 episodes…