Brilliant neurosurgeon Kenzo Tenma defies the political flunkies in charge of his hospital when he insists on operating in order of arrival, saving the life of a gunshot boy while a late-arriving local politician dies. Though he loses his position and his fiancée as a result, the decision awakens him to the true purpose of his profession. Newly devoted to serving the ill and saving lives, he wears himself to a nub. When the same flunkies remove him as the boy’s attending physician, all three are poisoned and die. The boy and his shell-shocked sister disappear that night and a bewildered Tenma is promoted to Head of Surgery, subsequently earning the suspicion of a very scary inspector. Nine years later Tenma is still working as Head of Surgery, his devotion to healing earning the love and respect of staff and patients alike. When he saves the life of a petty burglar suspected of killing a series of childless middle-aged couples, he befriends the man, urging him to confess what he knows. But when he does he destroys Tenma’s life once again. Because he killed those couples at another’s behest. At the behest of the child Tenma once saved.
It’s hard to describe Monster. Part evil fairy tale, part spy thriller, part moral study, and all dark resonance, it’s something akin to a myth: an Odyssey for the bleak, byzantine years directly after fall of the Soviet Union. It’s frightening, addictive, and amongst anime series, pretty much without precedent.
But before all of that, Monster is a thriller. And a good one. Set in Germany in the ’80s and ’90s, it takes the uncertain times surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and paints upon them a tale of hidden evil, justice miscarried, and murder most foul. The series owes an obvious debt to Hitchcock (a debt it itself acknowledges by borrowing a pivotal scene from The 39 Steps), and it learned well at the Master’s knee. The man himself couldn’t put the screws to his audience better than Monster does during Tenma’s descent from respected surgeon to serial murder suspect. It’s an unbearably tense series, mounting terror cycling with cathartic release, each turn of which—the poisoning at the hospital, the confession of the burglar, the rescue of Johan’s sister—leaves the series in a very different, and usually more frightening place. Even the series’ side-stories—in which it catches up with secondary characters like the fiancée and the inspector—are tiny little marvels of small-scale cinematic sadism.
To this stew of wrong-man thrills and twisty chills the series adds a strong flavor of moral discourse. Tenma’s journey doesn’t just force the poor man into a series of escalating confrontations with the evil he inadvertently unleashed, but also asks some difficult questions of us. Is all life created equal? Is murder ever justified? Is saving a life ever wrong? How is evil created, and to what lengths are we justified in the pursuit of its destruction? Timely and knotty, Monster’s moral paradoxes have no easy answers, and it offers none. Which is as it should be. And yet, through all of the human experimentation, greedy carnage, and righteous homicidal urges, the series somehow keeps its moral compass oriented due north. It never loses sight of the humanity of its characters, or of the human realities that underlie even the most heinous crimes.
With one exception: Johan. Johan’s motivations aren’t comprehensible by any human standard. That isn’t a criticism; because Johan isn’t human. Johan is a monster. As intelligent as the rest of the series is, it is in Johan that it crosses the line from smart to brilliant. He is a creation of such genius that he almost lies outside of the boundaries of the story, a bogeyman who could conceivably be called upon to scare bad children straight. It is he who pushes the series beyond mere thrillerhood into the realm of dark mythology. He’s an abomination risen from the ashes of the Cold War to cast a bone-chilling shadow over Monster’s world, a presence of such cold, omnipotent evil that he is more analogous to the dark gods of ancient tales than to any person. It is in his presence—or more accurately, in his black shadow—that the series hits its chilling heights, that it achieves a primeval resonance, like a nightmare recounted in moonless dark.
If the series has a weakness, it’s in its unhealthy fidelity to Naoki Urasawa’s original manga. Director Masayuki Kojima made faithfulness his watchword in adapting Monster, and faithful he is. In fact, calling him faithful is an awful understatement; kind of like calling those widows who used to bury themselves in their husband’s graves faithful. Like clockwork each episode covers exactly two chapters of the manga: there isn’t a scene left out, only a handful added in, and as far as I can tell not a line of dialogue changed or omitted. Kojima obsessively recreates Urasawa’s visuals, from his realistic, idiosyncratic designs, to his carefully-crafted compositions and fondness for expressive angles. There’s nothing overtly wrong with that—in fact, given the quality of the manga, it’s hard to imagine doing it any other way. Nevertheless, particularly for those already familiar with the comic, watching what is essentially a careful reproduction of the original can seem a waste. At least at first.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the series to cast the same spell as its literary precursor. Madhouse’s dark, supple animation is more than up to the job of capturing, and even improving on, the cinematic quality of Urasawa’s art. Kojima’s decision to use actors with experience in live-action dubbing gives the dialogue veracity, and Kuniaki Haishima’s dissonant score adds immeasurably to the series’ hair-raising atmosphere. One look at the dead eyes of a pair of suspiciously helpful cops, a single earful of Inspector Lunge’s richly intoned suspicions, and you’ll forget all about comparing print with celluloid.
Viz goes for a similar level of anal fidelity. Their English adaptation is one of their most carefully cast and deliberately accurate in recent memory. Only a bare minimum of alterations are made to the dialogue; enough to stave off unnaturally cumbersome phrasing, but not enough to piss off even the most sensitive viewer. The performances range from good (any number of creaky old ladies; Tenma; most of the secondary cast) to superb (Doug Erholtz’s slippery Otto Heckel; Keith Silverstein’s grotesquely warm Johan). It’s easier to pick holes in than the Japanese, but not appreciably so.
For extras goodness, look no further than disc three, which includes an extensive portfolio of background information and interviews that is most helpful in making sense of the German setting
Given its faithfulness, fans of the manga will know that the series won’t get any better than this. That knowledge is as close as this set gets to a fault. Well, that and the licensing problems that presumably prevented Viz from using David Sylvian’s creepy original closing. Very few series can knot the gut the way Monster can, and fewer still while simultaneously knotting your brain and breaking your heart. If that doesn’t sound like your definition of a good time, look elsewhere. To everyone else: welcome to Tenma and Johan’s world. Don’t expect to be released anytime soon.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ A superlative thriller with undertones of moral debate and a dark power that goes far beyond its skill with suspense; Johan.
− Obsessively faithful to its source material; this is as good as the series gets.