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Monster or Monsuta

This is a seventy-four episode anime serial available under the Japanese name Monsutā or Monster and, in every respect, it’s one of the most interesting animes ever made. Based on the manga by Naoki Urasawa, it was animated by Madhouse Studios, directed by Masayuki Kojima, with the script written by Tatsuhiko Urahata.

 

The story is somewhat unusual in that it’s an essentially naturalistic crime story set in contemporary Germany with occasional trips across the border to Prague or Vienna. Although other animes like Hellsing are set outside Japan, they are mostly fantasy or science fiction. There are natural dramas like Prince of Tennis, Skip Beat, etc. but they are all set in Japan. This is one of the few opportunities to see modern Europe through Japanese eyes. As a preliminary thought we need to dispose of the obvious anomaly. The “hero” is Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a brilliant Japanese surgeon working in Düsseldorf. There are relatively few Japanese people in Germany, Austria or the Czech Republic. Even if we choose to see him as not specifically Japanese and more generically Asian, he’s never perceived as standing out or being distinctive in any way. He’s able to pass unnoticed whether in a crowd or walking along an otherwise empty street. This is, of course, a necessary plot device to allow a Japanese hero to prevail in establishing his innocence when accused of crimes in a foreign land. But it’s an odd decision. In reality, such a man would be noticed as different, particularly when opening his mouth to speak. Thus, either the writers believe a Temna figure could be on the run and not be detected, or they don’t care whether the story is realistic in this respect. It should be said that, otherwise, the story is remarkably accurate.

Eva and her man Tenma

 

As cultural anthropologists, let’s make a short list of the more powerful observations. At a personal level, all brilliant young surgeons are groomed for leadership as shown, i.e. they give their research to the current heads of department and so earn the right of succession. Equally, the daughter of the hospital’s director, Eva Heinemann, stalks Temna and has him lined up as her husband and the next director of the hospital. She’s wonderfully self-absorbed and only towards the end does she come to terms with her character flaws. More generally, the theme of Neo-Nazism is surprisingly well-developed. In the real world, German reunification brought many disaffected people from East Germany into the ranks of the West’s right wing. As in the anime, there have been racist arson attacks on accommodation occupied by immigrants. Linking this with an Aryan programme to breed new leaders is particularly fascinating. Petr Čapek represents the old guard, determined to put a new Hitler in place, while General Wolfe represents the establishment’s traditional opposition to a dictatorship. The dynamics of how this flows through the organisation including such characters as The Baby creates great dramatic tension.

Grimmer dreaming of the possibility of magnificence

 

The anime speculates on the qualities required for such a Neo-Nazi leader and how might one establish an environment in which such qualities could be encouraged and developed. As the story develops, the initial work of Franz Bonaparta, reinforced by the events in Kinderheim 511, demonstrates a methodology based on depersonalisation, encouraging essentially sociopathic behaviour that diminishes the respect for human life. In this, we have a willingness to kill individuals without compunction and to cause death on a wider scale just as one might stamp on a line of ants on the ground. The results are variations on schizophrenia, bipolar or multiple personality disorder, all of which are portrayed with quite stunning virtuosity in characters like Grimmer and Roberto.

Johan now ready to jog Nina's memory

 

Thus, when we come to the titular monster, Johan, we find him experimenting with death both in others and through situations in which he knows he could also die. Indeed, ironically, the eugenics programme has actually produced the ultimate anarchist, acting with complete disregard to whether he himself survives. Johan’s triumph, should we wish to describe it so, is to produce in Temna a similar disregard for his own life. At the end, the two can stand face-to-face, ignoring the slaughter around them as if they were standing on an empty windswept plain. At this point, nothing else matters apart from this transcendent moment in which they share mutual understanding.

Anna/Nina keeps looking over her shoulder

 

All of which brings us to the complexity of the triangular relationship between Johan, his twin sister Anna/Nina, and Tenma. Initially out of gratitude, Johan kills for Tenma. Subsequently, he contrives to create a Tenma in his own image. Tenma gets into trouble because of his stubborn desire to do what he thinks right and then must fight to remember who he is no matter what Johan may do to manipulate him. As Anna/Nina, the twin is an innocent. Her amnesia is total. But when her world is dismantled by Johan, she must also fight to remember who she is and to resist the programming she received from Bonaparta. In this, she relies on the redoubtable Rudy Gillen and Julius Reichwein for counselling and treatment. They also team up with Fritz Vardemann to become Tenma’s greatest allies in the legitimate world.

Inspector Runge

Inspector Runge considers new information

 

Finally, every good crime story deserves a brilliant detective. In the creation of Inspector Heinrich Runge we have a obsessive man whose skills of empathy are unsurpassed. Able to put himself in the position of the criminal, he analyses the scene of a serious crime and profiles the personality of the perpetrator. Combine this with an eidetic memory and you have a man driven to find the truth. At first, he believes Tenma has two quite separate personalities: one the caring surgeon, the other a cold-blooded killer called Johan. Except, slowly, he begins to see this may not be the right way to interpret the evidence.

 

It’s remarkable to be able to write that this is a serialised story that grips the viewer from start to finish. I remind you this is seventy-four episodes, adding in the ads, each of about 30 minutes. There are moments of elation, of humour, of tragedy. There’s despair and heroism, love and hate. All human life is on display. And at the end, it says something profound about society and individuals within it. Perhaps, as a group, there are tendencies to paranoia and madness. Yet, if there are a few strong personalities, there’s always a chance some can be saved. The sad thing is that some of the strong may have to sacrifice themselves knowing as they die, that those they save will not thank them. Perhaps, at the end, that’s the true meaning of a state of mind we call nobility — a willingness to consider the interests of the many before the self.

 

No matter what your opinion of anime as a medium, you should look past the form and revel in the magnificence of the message. This is a tour-de force, fiction elevated to literal and metaphorical art.

 

My thanks to Feathered Angel at http://anime.akichigo.org/monster/ for the screen shots.

 

  1. Krill
    February 8, 2011 at 6:49 am

    Amazing post. Pretty much the first I’ve seen that actually engages with Monster in any detail on an artistic and thematic level. Most reviews simply praise its quality pacing and plotting, without really looking much at the political, social and ethical elements of the series which are surprisingly substantive.

    Considering your response to Monster, I would highly recommend looking into reading the two manga Pluto and 20th Century Boys also by the same author/artist. Neither have been adapted into anime, though 20th Century Boys was turned into a live-action trilogy in Japan of pretty variable quality which also departs in some significant ways from the manga unlike Monster which is basically 100% faithful to the original manga.

    I’d like to note that Naoki Urasawa spent some time living in Dusseldorf before writing Monster, which explains how authentic much of it feels. It’s also worth noting that Dusseldorf has the third largest Japanese population in Europe and the largest in Germany. That’s still only 2% of the population, though so Tenma’s stand-out status would remain.

    I think the contrivance is a result of the series bearing deliberate parallels to Astro Boy (which Pluto is a retelling of). Dr. Tenma in Monster is named after the Dr. Tenma who creates Astro Boy. The Frankensteinian parallels are obvious as well.

    • February 8, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Thanks for your response. I’ve watched quite a lot of anime and I’m going to start writing up more reviews. But I have a problem other than a general lack of time to run this site. I confess never actually looking inside a manga. I’m a reader of books and, even though I have easy access to manga, I don’t have time for the additional reading. This leaves me without essential background in knowing what the source material looks like and how much it was been changed on the way to the screen. I paid to go and see the first installment of 20th Century Boys on the big screen and thought it was interesting, but not interesting enough to pay to see the sequels. Your information about Naoki Urasawa fills in a gap in my knowledge and makes me feel guilty I had not looked him up.

      Your reference to Frankenstein is also appreciated — and, yes, I have watched some Astro Boy — but although I agree that Astro Boy is Frankensteinian, I am less convinced of the relevance to Monster. I suggest a better source is the myths of Prometheus in which the son of a god is punished for giving mankind fire, and Icarus whose hubris leads to his death. Tenma brings the gift of amazing surgical skills to Germany and is punished because he, rather than Dr Heinemann as Daedalus, decides who shall receive the benefit of those skills. Thereafter the narrative falls into a more general theme of redemption as Tenma must accept his Fate while staying true to this ethical beliefs. That it should be Runge who directs Tenma to perform the surgery at the end is society finally accepting Tenma for who he is. That makes Tenma’s decision to join Médecins Sans Frontières feel so right. He has been pushed too far out of society ever to accept readmittance on its terms. In a sense, he has become a mirror version of Johan, but using his powers on a constructive not destructive basis.

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