You know what’s scary? Lying awake at night listening for sounds through the silence.
When I was younger—living in a country where fear and tales of the supernatural are a major defining characteristic of the cultural experience—there was nothing worse than the things that go bump in the night. Folklore was designed to teach but also to frighten.
These nights, there are scarier things than thoughts of restless, malicious spirits haunting graveyards, and old, creaky houses. What’s truly scary are the din of thoughts that occupy the mind and turn to the inevitable adult worries—failures, interpersonal relationships, and self-worth.
At the heart of it all, it’s people and just how easy it is to manipulate the mind, that are most terrifying.
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is exactly that. It’s a psychological thriller about a serial killer whose charismatic demeanour compels those around him to murder for him. He’s not without bloodied hands and Monster searches for answers as to what differentiates people from the grotesque, disfigured creatures assigned the same designation. It’s a lot smarter than that though. It’s about redemption. The unspeakable horrors of human nature. All the while examining serial killer Johan Liebert’s motivations, and the journeys of Doctor Tenma, and Johan’s twin sister Anna, on their own paths to becoming ‘monsters’—for moral justifications.
And still, there’s so much more to Monster.
Monster is that engaging, rich, dense, divided and seamlessly interwoven, and it’s also one of the best pieces of storytelling—of any medium—that I’ve ever experienced.
I watched the anime adaptation of Monster. At 74 episodes, it’s a long haul to fully realize the agony Tenma is burdened with, in addition to the complex character development for Johan, Anna, and others.
The first few episodes begin with Tenma as a rising neurosurgeon star in the medical field in Germany. Engaged to the Director’s daughter of a prominent hospital, destined to become financially secure as the next Director where he dreams of being in a position to further his research—his comfortable life seems predetermined.
Just as quickly as we are told his future is bright, it vapourizes because he does the right thing. What’s the right thing? Saving the life of a child whose gunshot wound to the head demanded immediate attention. As the patient who came in ahead of the Mayor with a brain aneurysm, Tenma makes a crucial political ‘mistake’ to operate on the child—leaving the Mayor to die at the hands of less competent surgeons.
Politics, and his moment of rebellion against the orders of the Hospital Director, cost Tenma everything. He loses his secure future, his beautiful and gold-digging fiancée Eva, and in a moment of weakness (and while a little sloshed), he pours his heart out to the child he saved. Speaking out loud, he wishes that the Director would be better off dead.
His prayers fall on the ears of the devil—and are answered.
It’s a ‘gift’ bestowed upon by the very child he saved, Johan, who just so happens to be a serial murderer. The death of the Hospital Director restores security for a prominent role for Tenma and his path to success is achieved.
Nine years after enjoying this success, Tenma discovers that his drunken, wishful thinking earned him that position and he had inadvertently made a pact with the devil. It was his decision to save a child—the right, pure decision as a doctor—that turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
The Pure Protagonist on His Way to Moral Degradation
Here’s this simple premise of a series of events where no good deed goes unpunished. In this case, Tenma’s unwavering, upstanding morals are shattered when he learns he’s saved the life of a serial killer. A child, no less. A child who had no family to return to because the child was brought in to the hospital in the first place for a suspected house break-in, or act of terrorism against refugees where both his parents were murdered. A child who would be an orphan along with his traumatized twin sister.
For all the great he does as a doctor, it’s all undone by the revelation that he’s effectively saved a Monster...the devil—and the series explores this theme of “what is true evil?” throughout its run.
This sets up the rest of the series: Tenma is a wanted man, the number one suspect for all of Johan’s murders (because Johan’s existence is known only to a few and certainly not the police), on the run from the law as he pursues the elusive Johan.
His journey takes him across Germany, where he becomes involved in crime syndicates, racial tensions throughout Germany and those who would give rise to neo-Nazism and his own experiences as a Japanese man during those moments, and helping normal people while doing what he does best as a caregiver. As the people he helps are clued into his status as a wanted criminal, they also see his truth as an innocent man through his actions and words.
He can’t be anything else when dealing with people. His kindness gains him the trust of all the lives he touches. It’s ironic because it’s this kindness that earned him the sympathy of the devil, too.
But this is why Monster is in part, so emotionally taxing. He follows Johan’s trail not because he’s interested in clearing his good name of the murders. Exposing Johan’s actions is not the logical, selfish act he’s set out to achieve.
Tenma is determined to end the life he returned—to go against his true nature as a doctor, as a caregiver and as a lifesaver—and become a killer.
Monster flirts with Tenma’s morality edging closer to the red, where we’re supposed to question whether there’s such a thing as an absolute black and white distinction in what’s right and what’s wrong.
Determination and Obsession are Often Indistinguishable
What drives most characters in Monster is their fierce determination that borders—and often crosses the line—of obsession. Often their rage or unwillingness to admit truth blinds their thinking. For a few supporting characters, this means a point of no return. For others, it drags them through unthinkable darkness and diminishes chances for redemption. This is a truth that plagues just about every important character, and best describes Monster’s cast members’ constant moral struggles.
Detective Lunge is one such character, whose obsession with catching Tenma is clouded by his mechanical way of thinking. This leads him to neglect his family. Even when they are walking out on him, he’s out of touch with that reality and believes he can have a discussion with them “when he gets home”. Later, his conversations with his daughter after she gives birth and wants to reconnect are marred by this obsession. He agrees to meet with her but only due to the fact that during the time of the conversation, Lunge had put himself in the mind of his target, Dr. Tenma, and responded to his daughter’s request as he believed a Japanese man would act: where culture would dictate politeness and non-refusal. It’s an odd scene but characterizes his personality perfectly where he prioritizes work over salvaging his relationships. How Lunge even manages to have a family is curious.
He’s perhaps one of the best examples of how Monster tells most of its story effortlessly. Character development is not always so smooth for some, while others are steadily revealed and clearly stated.
For Lunge, his transition is the longest and we’re not quite fed information as to his turning point and changed ideals. The steps and conclusions Lunge needs to achieve character growth are interestingly vague yet as methodical and steeped in the obsessive nature that defines him. It’s this mysterious plot detailing that makes Monster so clever and unexpected in some ways. There’s a dedication to each of its characters that’s necessary for exploring just how complex they all are which in turn keeps the story focused, even when it feels at times like more questions are being asked than answered.
Supporting Characters Carry Immeasurable Strength
Tenma, Anna and Johan pose an incredibly engaging narrative all their own. The addition of supporting characters’ stories not only serve to highlight the juxtaposition of Tenma’s wrestling with his life altering decision from his true nature, but acknowledges their strength too. It’s not hard to become invested in their well-being. Dieter, an orphan that Tenma saves from an abusive man, is one of the most well-developed. He’s there to act as Tenma’s conscience and his safety lock. But it’s easy to look past his presence as a plot device as a moral compass to become attached to his fate, even worry for his safety at times.
Dieter helps in more ways than one but he’s also a harsh reminder of just how far Monster is willing to push a narrative that’s unsettling at times.
He’s not the only one. There’s Wolfgang Grimmer, a former spy whose story is so vital to Monster’s backbone that saying too much would give away a lot of the plot. What’s important about him is his tragic past, and his attempts to regain his humanity.
There’s also Eva Heinemann, who goes through much of the series on a self-destructive path that she’s villain, pathetic, strong-willed and heroine all at once. Her story is curiously human which is to say it’s also terribly dysfunctional, which is true of many of Monster’s characterizations.
All of Tenma’s allies and enemies become invaluable to expressing minute details that create Monster’s involved narrative, while maintaining their own importance and identities. It’s some of the best-written and in-depth character studies of any cast, making them feel natural and honest.
Monster’s very much interested in these human narratives, and the second chances everyone’s given. Throughout his travels in Germany, Tenma impacts many lives by saving them both physically and emotionally. It also keeps solidifying that he is a good man and these encounters keep giving him second, third and fourth chances to opt out of the ultimate decision and action that would remove his humanity. He meets people who want to save him from that burden and soul corruption.
Episodes are often dedicated to dissecting the many people he meets who help his journey in some way. The cast of characters is diverse and large. Each suffering a moral dilemma of their own, with no real easy solutions. Even criminals and former enemies receive this everyman treatment at times.
There’s the story of the English couple traveling through Germany visiting all the places their son recommended during his own travels. Tenma hitches a ride with them, later learning that the elderly man was a former detective, known for being able to look at a person to determine their guilt or innocence. It’s a bit of a tense moment—as are all the moments when the Doctor has run ins with the law and avoids capture—but here, he becomes intimate with a cop who quits his job because his own son murdered a man, and he was blinded by his own prejudices to see his son as anything but that. Like Tenma’s journey will end once he finds Johan, their journey through Germany will end at a prison visit to the son as they face their deepest regret, truth and fear.
These micro explorations into minor characters’ narratives as they affect Tenma’s larger journey are the things that Monster conveys delicately but powerfully. They’re unassuming, fleeting encounters that unexpectedly add weight to the main story for deep, scarring and scrambled truths which gives viewers a lot to chew on. These arcs build this world with characters who are expertly layered, relatable with profound beauty and a flawed ugliness as human nature is wont to be.
There’s a constant balancing act that Monster indulges in. As much as it is about second chances it’s also unfortunately for those in atonement about the give and take that is never far behind, and how sins may at times be forgiven but are never forgotten. Past failings find a way to catch up to those who commit the worst crimes, often resulting in payment of claimed souls—an eye for an eye, regardless of their change. It makes Monster incredibly depressing—there are very few moments of genuine happiness for any of these characters, and are instead marked by darker implications—and in a show where religious symbolism is ever present, wavering between themes of the devil at your heels, and the ‘Voice of God’ calling to the impressionable... you have to wonder where God is in the narrative. It’s truly a case of faith being questioned and tested every step of the way where finding good comes in small doses or often too late.
It Doesn’t Shy From Showing The Worst Side of Humans
Monster is brutal. For every minute moment of happiness it manages to squeeze in through this tale of good versus evil, it’s also very real. The realness is in things like Dieter’s bruised body and bloodied face at the hands of his abuser. Prostitution in a small Turkish community where hate crimes are committed. Monster does not hold back when showing how easily life could be discarded, adding just more to Tenma’s burden. It’s matter of fact, at times, and just as shocking. But it’s also a drama that leaves a death toll for the sake of leaving viewers on the edge of their seat.
That level of violence usually comes at the hands of thugs and criminal element rampant in Monster’s many worlds it creates. Mobster deaths are frequent and pile on to the already high count that Johan leaves in his wake. They may not be as meaningful or disgusting in comparison to the loss of those lives that Johan takes for those who repent or are innocent but they should be. Sometimes these deaths are framed in such a way that nothing is without consequence. Other times, we root for their disposal — a harsh viewpoint when you think on it. It’s against what we should be feeling as well. It’s not the first medium or the last to implement this. It’s entertainment on some level, after all.
But ultimately, there’s a filth to Monster that is beyond deplorable. Gritty alleyways, flashes of child abuse and murder. It uses this griminess carefully for maximum impact. There are hints, rain-drenched scenes, darkly lit screens, screams of characters. In the same breath, the careful use of these elements aren’t that subtle, nor do scenes always cut away to leave the imagination to run wild. The focus is always on how terrified characters are when they stumble upon these acts too—in their inflections, reactions and terror filled eyes—making that filth intentional, hard to scrub, and completely sickening.
Stripping Identities and Creating Monsters Through Clever Use of Folklore
In a story already dealing with loss of self leading to the monsters created in people, there’s actually something of a traditional monster in Monster. The actual physical manifestation of a monster-like creature comes in the form of a storybook called “The Nameless Monster”. While the book is not necessarily the folklore on a wider scale ingrained into a country’s consciousness, it is an important element to Monster’s lore.
It’s an intentional, brilliant use of literature with multiple purposes—it’s an origin story but beyond that, “The Nameless Monster” is the basis for a lot of Monster’s foundation, mirroring this idea of what happens to humans when they are stripped of identity and will. It’s a cautionary tale which can be applied to just about every character, as Monster is heavy on the symbolism of losing, gaining and changing identities as it’s tied to our basic needs of family, and our needs as humans to seek interactions to express and validate our humanity. It relays this idea that humans are blank slates to be molded, and that there’s a misleading freedom in having no name, when it is in fact, isolating.
The folklore of “The Nameless Monster”, in this creepily animated picture book, does exactly what it’s supposed to do—it both educates and terrifies. It’s fitting that the one representation of how we typically think monsters are comes in this imaginary form, yet can lead to real life consequences within Monster’s narrative.
In so doing, it gives rise to one of the best, and most complicated villains in Johan. He’s not neatly definable—precariously poised on the side of emotionless yet charming, everything you want him to be, and a reflection of man’s most sorrowful desires. He’s lust, dangerous, quiet, intense, persuasive, tragic, beautiful and in a moment, hideous. It really is no mistake that it’s alluded to his being much like the devil while carrying all the significance, symbolism and complexities associated with that marker.
What’s most devious about Johan is that he could be anyone. As a character, he internalized and interpreted his circumstances to err on the unfortunate, corrupt nature of humans. He manages to be likeable too, or at the very least, we can sympathize with his plight. He’s proof that humans can be anything, and perhaps what Monster really teaches us is that we all have that propensity to develop into demons.
There’s a lot to explore in Monster. It may not always move at a rapid pace towards resolution. There are other times when its connections seem haphazard, but it never falters in the story it wants to tell. Unraveling it all may feel a time consuming undertaking but it’s well-worth peeling away all the layers of truth, becoming acquainted with the characters and watching them question their morality.
Monster’s the masterpiece that poses chilling questions to you too, and the answers are rarely clear amidst the cluttered, complex human mind.
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