The ultimate villain in all the history of anime! Feel free to argue with me on that, but I know a lot of people will agree with me. What a winding tale of mystery and humanity! Old by today’s standards, this series is still probably the best example of mystery and suspense in the history of anime, rivaled by few […]
The ultimate villain in all the history of anime! Feel free to argue with me on that, but I know a lot of people will agree with me. What a winding tale of mystery and humanity! Old by today’s standards, this series is still probably the best example of mystery and suspense in the history of anime, rivaled by few in its complexity, viewer engagement, and character design. Interestingly, the author of this series, originally manga, drew heavily on non-Japanese histories and environments to create this story. This is fairly unusual in the world of anime, where almost everything is centered on Japan one way or another.
But enough of the preamble. Let’s hit some of the more interesting points in this classic, and relive some of the best and most disturbing memories of this graphic tale.
I apologize ahead of time for the matchboxing and fuzziness on most of the images, but as this was pre-16:9 resolution, that’s the format we get on modern screens.
The author’s grasp of human nature is most apparent. Each character is extremely human, not trapped with dramatic but impossible frills, but with believably human traits. None of them are particularly extraordinary, but all are remarkable. If nothing else, making such “human” characters is always an achievement, something that’s been lauded in literature from the Fitzgerald to Shakespeare to ancient times and tales of old.
There is one—one—Japanese character in this series. Think for a minute about all the anime you’ve seen, particular those that take place outside of geographical Japan. First there’s fantasy, where nobody is Japanese of course, but they all act Japanese. Think of how many “fantasy” characters you’ve seen saying “itadakimasu” before eating! When the anime is based in our world, still most of the characters are Japanese, or, again, all behave Japanese. Don’t ask me why, but Nanbaka came to my mind first. The number of Japanese people is limited there, but there’s little differentiation between their design and behavior that would distinguish them as not Japanese. Probably the closest we get to Monster in this sense, that I’ve seen, is Black Lagoon. Rock is the only Japanese character there—no Revy isn’t Japanese, but Chinese-American—and the rest are simply from the Asiatic region or the Americas. But even there, the characters’ behavior is mostly Japanese. I could dig down into it and find lots of parts where maybe they’re not-so-Japanese, but if I associate anything with that series in this regard, it’s that there isn’t a lot of distinction among ethnic groups, despite us knowing most of the characters are from different ethnic groups.
Dr. Kenzou Tenma is the only person who is portrayed as Japanese in Monster. And he finds himself among perhaps the most foreign of all lands to any on our planet, late Cold-War-era Germany. This is an interesting decision for location, particularly for Japanese media (manga/anime). The author, Naoki Urasawa, took quite a plunge with this. Few places chose the paths that the lands of Germany and Eastern Europe in general took during the years from 1930 to 1990. All the details aside, these lands became very cut off and distinct, foreign to all who ventured in from the outside.
Such is the place Dr. Tenma finds himself. Because of how out of place the author portrayed him, I continually wondered whether Tenma really would turn out to be the real monster. After some consideration, I realized the true reason Tenma felt out of place, and why ultimately it wasn’t he who was out of place or “out of line,” but everyone else. I realized how an argument could be made that Tenma is a kind of monster.
Dr. Tenma is a good man. It’s pointed out many times that he can only save lives. He cannot take them. To the very end he upholds this part of his character. This is what separates him from the world. Throughout this story, we see multiple types of reactions by many different characters to the injustices and the horrors committed against them or their loved ones. Who doesn’t sympathize with Nina’s resolute decision to kill her own brother? Or with any random character’s desire for revenge seen at times throughout the show? This is the typical reaction, and we see lots of different versions of it. Whether it’s Nina’s simple calculation or a passing character’s instant desire for revenge, that’s the reaction we understand. That’s the “normal” human reaction for us.
While Dr. Tenma comes to the conclusion that he should kill Johan, this is not a “normal” desire for revenge for two reasons. First, he gave life back to Johan. While it’s debatable ethically, Dr. Tenma might be in a position where he has a right to subsequently take that life. Second, Dr. Tenma approaches this as a surgeon would: remove the destructive object before life is lost. Just as he would carve up a brain to remove a leaden bullet, so he would train in warfare and hunt the creature that takes the lives of those he can help.
On top of all this, Dr. Tenma never acts on it. He never pulls the trigger on Johan. Even Nina empties her magazine on Johan once, failing to hit him. Dr. Tenma only shoots a man once, the one called Roberto, and that non-fatally in the shoulder. Even there he’s being threatened however, and the idea of personal defense comes into play. This is the distinguishing trait of Dr. Tenma. He refuses to take revenge. None of his actions are intended to take life, but to preserve it. If being a monster means to be completely different than humans while appearing otherwise human, then Dr. Tenma fits that description. Only, everyone else is “normal” to “evil,” somewhere in that spectrum, and he is “good.”
He’s not the only “good” character in this story, but his actions distinguish him in that way. Nina of course is another “good” character, but in a different way. She’s trying to be human. The metaphorical story with the two monsters tells you a lot about her. She’s the half of the monster that doesn’t go around trying to fulfill itself. She simply lives, and tries to do that living among the people she find herself surrounded by. She strives to be human, whether she’s always aware of her efforts or not. She accepts what humanity pours into her. On one side, Dr. Tenma pours in his goodness. “Don’t shoot!” he admonishes her more than once. On the other side, her brother pours his evil. From the very beginning of our tale, he tells her the exact opposite of what Tenma tells her. He points to his forehead, and commands her to shoot. Between the two, she continually has to make choices. That’s a very human thing, to make choices between the impossibly good and the unthinkably evil. She makes some of each kind of choice, ultimately choosing Tenma’s way overall.
So what of this Johan Leibert, so called for the lack of a name? Indeed, we never learn his real name. He learns it finally before the end, but we don’t. Ah this is the essence of this character! The monster with no name!
The ocean of literature is deep on what it means to be a monster. For the sake of brevity, I will simply say this. There is some consensus that the worst monsters are malignant or mutant forms of humanity. We all know Frankenstein’s monster, the quintessential monster of this kind. Often this malignancy takes physical form. In the best characters of this kind, it’s usually through a deformity or particular item of equipment or clothing. The best example of this type of character in anime is, beyond all doubt, the great Kaneki Ken from Tokyo Ghoul. We may never see a monster character of that kind of that quality ever again. Or deformities can take a creature out of the human realm entirely. This idea of a monster makes a couple of appearances in this tale surrounding Johan, and I’ll examine those points as we go on.
So you read through that paragraph, and perhaps you think “Well he’s definitely not deformed outwardly.” On the contrary, he and his sister are visually described as very beautiful. Here is where it gets twisted. Here’s where the monster appears. For Johan and Nina are identical. What could be more monstrous than for two identical people, of the same blood, to turn into nearly polar opposites?
But how is Johan the opposite of Nina? I should think that’s obvious. Should I go into the details? Should I tell you when I started wishing for Johan’s death? As I watched this show, I examined Johan carefully. For any number of reasons I had to, not the least of which were questions of whether he was truly real or truly alive, etc. But mostly I was looking for evidence that could convict him of the charge of monstrosity. But even as his crimes mounted, I didn’t feel like he deserved death. I had too much uncertainty. If he wasn’t real, then someone else was committing the murders. If he was truly brainwashed, he hardly could be held to account. These and other thoughts competed for my attention as I analyzed his character and behavior.
Once Johan murdered Richard Brown, the former detective who had killed the young man some time back in a drunken rage (supposedly), that’s when I lost it. I would’ve been out to kill Johan after that. Poor Mr. Brown was getting his life back on track. His wife and daughter left him after the shooting, fed up with his alcohol addiction and the aftermath of the incident. He was just getting to a point where his wife would meet with him to talk, and his daughter was ready to meet him that day. Then Johan led him around and seduced him into drinking again, whereupon Mr. Brown fell from the rooftop of a building to his death. I’d had enough at that point. There was no denying the incomprehensible monstrosity of this character after that. This empty human shell wreaking havoc on people’s lives is maddening to the viewer’s soul.
This led me to understand two parts of Johan that contribute to his monstrosity, but in different ways. The first was that he almost never operated alone. He always tricked other people, or outright convinced them, to do his dirty work. I’d seen lots of examples of this up to that point in the show, but I hadn’t considered it as a factor of his monstrosity until the incidents with Mr. Brown. And only then I realized it contributes to his monstrosity because of the other item I became aware of.
Whenever Johan induces others to act out his plans, he disappears into the metaphorical fog. People cannot trace anything back to him, furthering his efforts to disappear from all knowledge. Inspector Lunge can only point to a void which cannot exist to fit all the clues surrounding the crimes, something he ascribes incorrectly to the fantasy of Dr. Tenma. It’s when Johan plays an active part in executing his plans that things go wrong. For him.
Johan has to push his humanity into obscurity to disappear. This creates the monster in the first place. Hence he has to act through others. When he’s forced to act himself, it’s the actions of a human. Not a shell holding a monster inside, which he likes to imagine is the case, but his true physical self. He cannot separate himself from that when he acts. The first time we have any evidence of the criminal Johan’s existence as the murderer is when he shoots Mr. Junkers in the abandoned building outside Tenma’s hospital. At that point, his entire plan to disappear is undermined. Once he eschews the monstrosity that acting from the shadows gives him, some of the monster disappears.
This is odd, since we’d think that monstrosity is best displayed through the person himself. Interestingly, I think Johan himself is a “victim” of that conception as well, hence his occasional misstep of entering the fray himself. Every time he does so, his ultimate goals are further undermined. The incident with Mr. Brown was a big mistake for him. Yes, only a monster could intentionally, as part of a greater plan, induce a recovering alcoholic to drink again just before he could restart his relationship with his family, and then kill him. Yes, I think we’re supposed to believe Johan acted on that rooftop. That’s the only way he could insure that Mr. Brown actually fell. By doing so, even with such a monstrous act, he became more visible. He stepped into the light a little more, so to speak.
I could recount a handful of other instances where his plans seemed to slip because of his own finger on the trigger, we might say. But perhaps the best example of all is the initial incident itself. Whatever Johan’s “plan” was that he mentioned to Nina, its ultimate doom was the death of the Leiberts at his own hand. It was completely derailed by the shooting of Mr. Junkers, and every subsequent personal action he took thereafter served to derail it the rest of the way, but it was shooting Mr. and Mrs. Liebert that not only started the course of events we witness, but also insured that he could never ultimately succeed. After all, he came back to life, and he involved a good person in his tale. Such a wrench in his plans, as they say, could never be overcome.
Is he the ultimate monster in anime? There’s some great examples out there with Kaneki Ken (Tokyo Ghoul, aforementioned), Guts (Berserk), Light Yagami (Death Note), and Dio Brando (Jojo), to name a few. But be they antagonist or protagonist, I think Johan tops them all. Ignore all the academic stuff I just said, and this guy is just wicked. He does everything without a second thought. His emotions are warped. He perverts justice and equanimity by asserting that the only thing people are truly equal in is death. All he sees is death. The landscape of the end. And all he wants is everyone else to experience that same thing, or die if they can’t see it. Which essentially means everyone other than him will die, since no one can see that thing but him. He is the center of his tiny universe. If it weren’t for Dr. Tenma, who has the goodness to counter him and thus see the evil landscape himself (notice how Johan never tries to kill Tenma?), then that vision might have been enacted.
To wrap up about Johan: what an amazing design! I hold that it’s easier to create an evil character than it is a good one, but that doesn’t mean making a quality bad guy is easy. We all know the stereotypical evil laughing, pompous bad guy type with his evil plan to take over the universe starting with your neighborhood. This doesn’t even hint at that. On the contrary, everyone likes Johan. They “worshipped the monster” as the ominous prophecy from the Bible speaks of at the outset of the series. Drawing from that and other sources, Urasawa-san created a magnificent monster. This is quite a character in the history of anime villains, and I will argue for his supremacy any time.
My favorite supporting character is probably Mr. Grimmer, another of the Kinderheim 511 cases. He’s found a way to live, and does so with a big smile on his face. He doesn’t properly perceive his emotions until the very end however. The poor man doesn’t cry because he’s dying, he says at the end, but because his son died. He finally felt sadness at that unhappy event in his life. But beyond his heartfelt side, I love the Incredible Hulk thing we get from him! This is another monster type thing that this series overuses a little, the alter ego, but this is the best example of it in the show. We never get to see this thing in action! Yet after the second appearance it makes, we know it’s truly there. Grimmer goes from this mild-mannered, tender-hearted, big lanky guy into the raging beast that beats his enemies to death. The gentle giant character transforms into the Hulk. Or, as he calls it, the Magnificent Steiner, a fictional German copycat show of the Incredible Hulk. It’s totally unexpected, and it brings the beastly monster into our view.
Aside, the beast monster is another more familiar monster type, and we only see it twice in this series. One is the aforementioned Magnificent Steiner alter ego, but the other is a spectacular little nugget right near the conclusion of the series. Johan’s plan is finally killed, and by a little nobody who simply happens along. The man is the Ruhenheim drunk, and just as he comes along, Johan is once more involved in the act. Johan has placed a gun against the head of the drunk man’s son, and his true feelings emerge. He runs to save his son, shooting Johan in the head. But as he’s perpetually drunk, he cannot fully recount the scene to the police. He says he shot a seven-headed monster that was threatening his son. The author puts a nice finishing touch on this monstrous display!
But I stray. I don’t want to write a tome about all the different characters. I’ll mention just a few more. The handful of good doctors we see will restore your faith in humanity (and medicine!). The courageous children who at times take a stand, at times take a step, and at times refuse to pull the trigger, are all great additions. Poor Roberto, the guy who loved hot cocoa at Kinderheim 511 but turned out to become Johan’s right hand. Eva Hienemann ruins her own life, don’t let her persuade you otherwise, but she resolves her troubles finally. The rather Holmesian Inspector Lunge and his interesting lack of humanity reflected through his data analytics. All fascinating characters that contribute effectively to the show overall.
This show is relatively old now (2004) so you won’t be familiar with the VAs unless you’re really into anime history. None of them were very prolific by today’s standards. Some of them are still active as of the time of this writing (2021). Hidenobu Kiuchi, who plays Tenma, voiced roles in Jojo and Violet Evergarden since 2015. Nozomu Sasaki provides the magnificent voice for Johan, and he has appeared in notables such as Death Note and World Trigger since then. Mamiko Noto (Nina) has done a lot of roles, but probably is most memorable for Sheele from Akame ga Kill! outside of Monster. I don’t know, maybe some of you are more into the Elsa Granhiert type from Re:Zero, who she also voices. Most recently she was Lara Tybur in the final season of Attack on Titan, which I found interesting. So she can voice a variety of voice types. None of those characters particularly sound the same. Kind of remarkable. Inspector Lunge is voiced by the rather interesting Tsutomu Isobe. This guy has done live action, animation voiceover, and English dubs. Always for tough guys. The funniest I learned about is that he dubbed Charlton Heston as Moses in the famous Hollywood film The Ten Commandments. I can’t even imagine what that sounds like! Apparently he’s dubbed Harrison Ford a lot too, which sounds interesting! Among anime, most notably he’s appeared in Gungrave (Harry MacDowel) and of course our favorite Black Lagoon, as the voice of Dutch.
So much fun! This is one of the older anime’s I’ve reviewed up to this point, so it’s fun looking back at these older VAs and seeing all the things they worked on, anime and otherwise. But that ended up as a giant paragraph. Let’s move on.
Great characters all around! Lots of depth, lots of humanity, great voice acting, always contributing and never distracting from the main story, all big A-pluses. Perhaps not the most compelling set of characters in all of anime, but of the highest quality nonetheless.
This manga series originated in 1994 believe it or not. The styling of the anime is therefore heavily ‘90s influenced, despite the fact that it was produced in 2004. A lot of what we associate with anime-typical artwork, like familiar eye-styling and body types, are completely absent in this work. Not that those styles didn’t exist—of course they did way back almost to the earliest anime even—just this show’s artwork departs from that track completely.
This makes it a little difficult to describe. For one thing, I don’t have much to compare it to. It’s not an American style, not even in a more realistic vein. I suppose it could be described as somewhat realistic, or more so than is typical of anime, but that doesn’t describe it very well either. Black Lagoon comes to mind again, but probably more for the dark tinting and desaturation than the styling. And no one will ever look like Revy again. But I stray.
If I had to compare it to something, I’d say Disney. Okay, that’s like comparing it to American animation, I know. And the similarities are not robust by any means. But as I look at someone like Dr. Tenma, I think Disney prince. It could just be all the hair, but that’s what first comes to mind. I don’t really get that feeling about any other character though. Johan and Nina feel very Japanese-anime-like, though they too lack those characteristics we’re familiar with. It’s strange.
All anime art echoes the forms of reality, but those resulting shapes are what make anime artwork so fascinating to me. All of them are clearly “human,” but often their forms are impossibly non-human. And there’s a spectrum for this. You have Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z and One Piece and Jojo types on one end, and Black Lagoon and Monster on the other. In Monster’s end of the spectrum, an effort is made to depict reality more accurately. I think that’s what I’m seeing the most in this artwork.
The correlation seems obvious. The more seinen a series is (seinen as an adjective, okay), the more the artwork will depict the shape of forms more accurately. I hear you. But then you have Gungrave, aforementioned. Asobi Asobase isn’t as seinen as Monster, but it’s definitely aimed at adults, and if you’ve seen that show you know there’s hardly a shred of accuracy in its artistic depictions. I could find other examples. So I don’t think that correlation argument holds up. Although, I would say that when I see this more realistic artwork, it’s almost always in seinen. So perhaps the converse correlation is true: if it’s more realistic, it’s probably seinen.
Still, one wonders why this might be the case. Do adults not prefer to see reality depicted so fantastically? Perhaps. But that’s a question left for animation production company specialists and psychologists. Regardless, Monster is about as seinen as anime gets, and we see much more “realistic” artwork, probably for that reason.
I like it. It works. There’s nothing spectacular about it. The cinematography (seriously, is there an appropriate word in animation that corresponds to this live action word? It feels so wrong to use it when discussing anime, but I don’t know a better word) is well done for a mystery/suspense show. The lighting is dim at all times, appropriate for the genre once again. Lots of carefully drawn weapons are on display in this show. You probably associated a Walther PPK with James Bond, but we see any number of them here in Monster. Tenma’s weapon of choice initially is the M9, or if you’re not US Army, you might know it as the Beretta 92. Interestingly, this is the same weapon the Revy wields in Black Lagoon, though the typical gunmetal black here instead of her chrome plated 9mms. Another Black Lagoon reference? Anyway, lots of real pistol models make an appearance in this show. Another dose of reality for this series.
So it works. Nothing stands out particularly, but the artwork serves the series well. The typical mystery-suspense elements are all there, some reality is injected, and you have your result. Nothing to jump up and down about, but all very good overall.
The premise of this story is based on a classic ethical dilemma: is it right or wrong to save someone who subsequently causes harm to others? Philosophers, medical practitioners, and the common man have debated this question for centuries. And this is not the first tale ever told based upon this premise. But in my experience, it’s among the best of those stories.
Dr. Tenma is the medical doctor faced with this question. The complicating factor for the situation he faces is that he doesn’t realize until long afterwards that he saved the person behind all the crimes. This is one part of the fascination with this particular ethical dilemma. The question itself is intriguing enough, but in reality, it is of course complicated by the fact that we cannot see the future. We cannot know if a person will turn into a criminal. We cannot know if we saved a monster.
So the good doctor feels responsible. And that’s not an incorrect conclusion. He did indeed save the life of the monster, and he therefore is responsible for the subsequent atrocities Johan commits. But there is a saving grace for him. Ultimately, as he cannot see the future, he cannot be held responsible for it. There’s no way he could know what would happen. Therefore even if he is responsible for the result, he cannot be held to account for it by anyone. He holds himself accountable, thus taking upon himself the burden of ending what he started. He claims the right to kill the human he saved.
But his dilemma is further complicated. True, he cannot know the future, and as a doctor, he’s obligated to save life. But he didn’t totally honor that commitment. He chose one life over another. Remember at the very beginning of the series, Dr. Tenma is confronted by a poor Turkish immigrant who inconsolably demands he return her husband to her. Dr. Tenma had operated on a different person at the command of the hospital director, Dr. Heinemann, even though the Turkish man was placed before the other man in the operation queue. Dr. Tenma later learned the man he operated on was an affluent person, thus the director had ordered his best surgeon, Tenma, to operate on him instead of the scheduled lowly Turkish man. The Turkish man died under the less-skilled hands of Dr. Becker, and the affluent man survived under Dr. Tenma’s care.
This troubled the good doctor, especially after partaking in a discussion between Dr. Heinemann and Eva, then his fiancé, where the two blithely remarked that not every patient was equal in their eyes. This haunted him as he continued to work. Until one day, a young child, a boy, was brought into his operating room. A bullet was lodged in his skull cavity, impinging on his spinal column. He would die without the most careful of operations. Tenma was prepped for the operation. Then, as fate would have it, the past began to repeat. Dr. Heinemann ordered him to operate on another patient, a mayor or some such government official, someone who could influence the flow of money to the hospital. In a critical moment, Dr. Tenma saw the same scenario playing out again, him a pawn of the director about to cost the life of the lowly person who was brought in first for the sake of an aged and corrupt politician. He made the decision. He pulled the metaphorical trigger. He returned to the young boy and extracted the bullet. The boy, Johan Liebert, lived. The politician died, under Dr. Becker’s watch once more.
We know how it works out after this. Tenma eventually learns that Johan kills the three doctors, including the director, and watches the person he saved, now a young man, shoot another of his patients to death before his eyes. This all happens within the first few episodes and sets up the worst imaginable version of this dilemma. It’s all fairly complex and well designed.
I could go into lots of different aspects of this initial premise, and certainly the twisted web of subsequent events has lots of interesting plot points that merit discussion. But I will focus on just two more elements in this story that stood out the most to me.
The first is Tenma’s decision to retake the life he gave. This is interesting ethically and clever as a plot device for this story. On the ethical side, it brings another classic dilemma into play in this tale. If one saves a life, or gives a life, does that person have the right to take that same life? This is a weighty question, and human irrationality usually takes this question into dangerous realms. Dr. Tenma is set up as a good person, capable of making good decisions, but even he is faced with a near impossibility by this question. Given that he concludes that the only way to end this ongoing string of atrocities is by killing Johan himself, he could only be in the right if he ethically had a right to take Johan’s life, having restored it to him. Otherwise he would be in the wrong, either a vigilante murderer or a man playing god. In other words, a monster.
As much as I’ve reiterated that Tenma is portrayed as a good person, this risk of being wrong seems to belie that. He’s willing to become a murderer, something no good person would do. But I like to think this is yet another example of his goodness instead. Because that’s just it. To save as many lives as he can—something Nina explicitly prompts him to do later in the series—he must take on the burden of becoming a murderer. He must become a monster. And he’s willing to do it.
It would be magnificent to contrast this with Johan’s desire to act as a monster, embracing the creature within and following its whims. But I have not the time and you probably have not the patience to read through such an in-depth examination right now. So I will leave that to another time or perhaps other people to explore for now.
I mentioned Tenma’s decision is a clever plot device as well. It allows the author to shape the story into a criminal fugitive narrative. Not only does it allow the pursuit of Johan by Tenma, not a detective, but it sets up Tenma as a fugitive being pursued by Inspector Lunge, a real detective. When a story allows for the creation of a great character, that’s a big positive for a story. Inspector Lunge isn’t the best character in the series, but everyone loves a great detective. Their odd quirks, aloof demeanor, condescending dialogue, and the mysterious sense that they know something all of us don’t is well embodied in Lunge.
From there, the final outline of the tale emerges. Tenma pursues Johan, Lunge pursues Tenma, and through adventures and tragedies and climactic moments of truth for the various characters we meet along the way, it culminates in the dramatic finish. It’s quite something that started from a simple ethical dilemma.
The second interesting element I wanted to focus on is a fine point at the outset of the story. As Dr. Tenma’s life begins to spiral downward after Dr. Heinemann demotes him for not following his orders and Eva revokes their engagement in a most heartless manner, he muses over the past events in his mind. He sits in Johan’s hospital room as Johan sleeps, still recovering from his very recent operation. He mutters that such men as the director and the two new doctors assigned to Johan (who allowed the media into Johan’s room against Tenma’s wishes) should just die. In his frustration, he loses his way a little and wishes such people never existed, and he gives voice to that as he sits there. Johan wakes from his sleep just at this moment and hears what Dr. Tenma is saying, unbeknownst to the good doctor. He interprets this as Tenma actually desiring these men’s deaths. And so he poisons them.
I have mixed feelings about this moment. On the positive side, it immediately highlights Johan’s monstrosity. He completely misinterprets Tenma’s mutterings, seeing them through the lens of his own perverse point of view. Also, it shows a weak moment for Dr. Tenma, giving us some reason to doubt his goodness, a doubt that persists throughout the show thereafter. But on the negative side, two things really bug me.
First, you know how I hate what I call “convenience” in a storyline. It’s just too terribly perfect for Johan to reawaken right at the moment Dr. Tenma is at the lowest point in his life psychologically and ethically. I realize that to have the scene we have there and the resulting mysterious events, we have to initially believe Johan doesn’t hear him. It would be too obvious what was happening if we realized too soon that he heard Dr. Tenma. But still, it’s “convenient” for the plot, and that bugs me a little. But second, it introduces a contradiction in Johan’s character that’s never explained to my satisfaction. Johan actually carries out the murder of the director and the two other doctors for the sake of Dr. Tenma!
It’s easy to overlook when it happens. And it’s not a terrible thing to introduce this idea. But here’s the contradiction: why does Johan act in somebody else’s interest? He does this kind of thing inexplicably a handful of times during the tale, and it’s always confusing. His actions always support his own interests only. He tramples freely on people’s lives and freedom without a second thought, whether they’re for or against him, if it’s in his interests to do so. So why act on behalf of Dr. Tenma’s interests? Why save Grimmer one time (disguised as Nina), and act on behalf of a handful of the Kinderheim 511 survivors from time to time? He doesn’t seem to care about any of them particularly. When Roberto appeals to him before he expires, Johan shows no sympathy for him, heartlessly telling Roberto that he cannot see the vision of the landscape of the end, and so he watches him die. You might say he acts in Nina’s interests a few times, and probably could point to some interesting examples of this. But even there, Nina is more or less him, or at least they both think this. That’s a bit of an odd part of the story too, the lack of differentiation that periodically pops up between the twins. I never understood Johan disguising himself as Nina, despite all the similarities it bears to the monster story, etc. But I stray.
So why these moments of seeming selflessness? I mentioned a bunch there, but the first with Dr. Tenma is the most striking. You might say that these doctors knew of Johan’s existence, and therefore Johan felt he had to kill them; that those actions were consistent with his attempts to disappear from knowledge. But others knew he was in the hospital. Nurses, media, a good deal of Germany that watched the nightly news. And none of them are killed for knowing he was in the hospital. And above all, Dr. Tenma knew he was there, which would put a target on him at that rate. Yet Johan never tries to kill Tenma.
One could argue Johan has an affinity for Tenma. There could be two reasons for this affinity. One, Johan believes he and Dr. Tenma are alike somehow. A great piece of evidence for this is the final showdown between Johan and Tenma in Ruhenheim, where Johan proclaims that Tenma can see the same “landscape of the end” that he can. That’s a really interesting idea, that Johan and Dr. Tenma are similar. But beyond the idea that they’re both monsters somehow, or that the world views them as monsters (perhaps more relevant), these two are quite obviously different. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in my mind to set them up as equivalent, no matter how you frame it. I’m very willing to be persuaded otherwise, as this is an interesting idea. But I don’t see it right now in the story.
But the other, more likely reason for this “affinity” is simply that Dr. Tenma saved Johan’s life. That’s where the contradiction really starts to sharpen into focus. Why on earth would the monster feel gratitude towards someone that saved his life? Is it a chink in the armor on the monster’s heart? Is it some glimmer of hope that a real human still resides in Johan? Does that hope have something to do with the fact that Johan is still alive at the end of this tale? It leaves a lot of big questions surrounding Johan as a character, questions that you would not have about someone who is truly a monster. Johan’s humanity is what he feels is being denied in the first place, and thus by seeking to reclaim it, he becomes even less human and more monster. So introducing these human elements of gratitude and selflessness into Johan is either really clever or really reckless.
The choice of environment for this tale is an interesting one. At the end of the Cold War, all eyes and ears were focused on Germany. USA-USSR relations were calming as the Soviet empire began to weaken and die, and fears of nuclear holocaust abated for the first time in several decades. Germany’s division between former Allied-powers-controlled West Germany and communist East Germany became the center of the world’s focus. The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of socialism’s totalitarian grip on this part of the world, and exposed the remaining Nazi German elements to the remnants of East Germany’s vengeful nature thereafter. What looked a like a total positive to most of the world was very much a time of unease, distrust, and fear for the residents of Germany, especially for those who lived closest to the divide.
History lesson over. What I find most fascinating is that this author, a Japanese man, and very far removed from former Axis influences stemming from that region in the far past, would take so much interest in these world events as to place a story about a Japanese doctor within this environment. I don’t want to dig into the weeds of why this might or might not make sense artistically. I just find it interesting as I turn this over in my thoughts as I revisit this show in my mind. It would be like an American writing knowledgeably about some historical events in England or Russia. I might expect that in a history book, or a documentary, or a carefully crafted book or feature film. But it’s not something we see very often in anime. It’s kind of remarkable for that reason.
I could go on and on about this story, but I’ve touched on enough interesting points and I’ve pounded this keyboard enough for today. The story is just very well done. It twists around and perhaps is susceptible to the charge that it goes on for too long (74 episodes with a single main thread throughout the whole!) but it is among the best anime mystery stories out there, and perhaps among all mystery stories.
Revenge is something I notably didn’t touch on very much during this review. Why would the Hawk not address this, you say? It is one of the bigger elements hanging over this series, after all. I simply chose to avoid it arbitrarily. I could’ve colored this entire review in the light of revenge. I could examine how both Johan and Tenma could be seeking revenge. I could say Nina is seeking revenge. But if nothing else, that’s all a little superficial. Of course we could say that. On the surface, that’s what it looks like these people are after. But not only is it superficial, and therefore less interesting for discussion, revenge as a plot device is so overused that it’s become somewhat cliche. There’s no reason for me to dive into that realm here because even if this story was about revenge, it’s not like the cliched plot devices where revenge is usually employed. I didn’t feel it was the driving force behind this show as much as other aspects surrounding the question of monstrosity were.
Want something fun to explore about Johan? Go and compare him to someone like the Joker, particularly the infamous Heath Ledger version. “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Remember that? Does it send thrills running through your skin? Great characters can do that!
Music! The music is limited in this series, with just a handful of themes appearing at key moments to add to the feeling in the scenes. Often this adds tension, but there are familiar melodies that are soft and hopeful too. Mostly I remember the opening and endings though. Two different endings are utilized during the entire span of 74 episodes. The first is more eerie than the second, though mostly this is because we’re presented with those ghastly images that we yet don’t realize come from the picture book that appears prominently through the second half of the series. But both ending pieces are interesting. But everyone who’s seen this show probably remembers the famous opening. It’s dramatic, scary, unearthly, and impactful. Like most things in this show, there’s nothing spectacular about it, but it fits perfectly for this show. It’s well done.
The crime drama genre remains popular regardless of medium. Every US network has at least one in their seasonal lineup year in and year out, and I presume that’s similar for most modern television markets. It’s less prevalent in the world of anime. Nonetheless, when it appears, people tend to take notice. You can all probably point to a different favorite in this category. Before I watched Monster, I would have placed Psycho-Pass at the top of that genre list, for me. It was all the little things crime drama should be: gutsy, heartfelt, gripping, dark and mysterious. The crimes were not commonplace but not ridiculously heinous either. But again, you all might pick other shows, and I definitely understand that. That was just a personal opinion, having little to do with artistic quality, etc. But after seeing Monster, I can say unequivocally that this defines the crime drama genre for anime. For all the reasons aforementioned, it is everything such a show should be and more.
And it’s a classic! I don’t see that status changing any time soon. It feels older already, art style and all, but it also is enduring. I think people will recognize this as the ichiban anime crime tale for many generations to come. It will be too hard to improve upon. And while I always admire pushing the boundaries in anime, I don’t readily see how one could in this category. You could copy this and make a successful show more easily than you could make something different and better.
There will be better villains. There will be better heroes. There will be better stories. There will be more mysterious mysteries. There will be better storylines. But what I don’t think there will ever be a better monster. I don’t think there will ever be another Monster.