Monster – Anime review

Monster is a TV anime series of 74 episodes long. It was adapted from seinen manga by Urasawa Naoki. It started with Dr. Tenma Kenzou, a brilliant and promising neurosurgeon, who saved a young boy’s life against the director’s orders. That was the start of a headlong plunge into a nightmare, from favoured prodigy to pariah. It cost him his fiance, the privileges and position he had enjoyed in the hospital. When the heads of the hospital were murdered, Tenma became the prime suspect. To complicate matters, the boy he saved appeared to be the murderer.

On the surface, Monster appears to be a thriller. It’s not really a murder mystery. In fact, most of the murderer(s) were revealed to the viewers almost immediately. However, it is a mystery nonetheless.

Monster explored deeper into the psychological development of Tenma, a passive unassertive Japanese man in Germany, who was turned into a fugitive, who had his entire world view questioned and his life turned upside down. Every character brings their own personal philosophy about life and what is important to them, then have those questioned and challenged. Be it betrayal, hope, despair, vengence, mercy, hate, forgiveness, integrity, self-esteem, sense of self, love, fear, jealousy, desire, simple kindness, possessiveness, sense to belonging, peace of mind, patriotism, equality, discrimination, isolation, favouritism, faith, belief, good, evil; each character added a new dimension to the exploration of complex tapestry that is the human psyche.

The central theme of Monster revolves around the question “Are all life equal?” We all know the politically and socially acceptable answer. “Yes, all life are equal.” But Monster looks beneath the surface, into the darkest deepest recess of human mind, where the answer may not be so clear cut. Tenma started with the belief that all life are equal. He had a rather simple goal, he wanted to be a doctor to help people. Yet, when he faced the reality of his own actions and hospital policies, he found that, not all life are treated equally. He was told point blank that his belief was naive. Fame, power, wealth, and influence would add weight to the importance of a person’s life. He himself was a party to this form of discrimination.

The main plot challenges Tenma’s belief several times. Does a criminal deserved to be saved? A serial murderer, who had killed, who had the intent to kill again … should he be killed, left to die, left alive, or saved? Should he take one life to save another? When push comes to shove, can he really deliberate kill another person, when he was such a weak and soft person?

Time and again, the viewers were left wondering what the characters should do and would do. Even better, it left the viewers questioning themselves on where they stand. Can we make a choice in such dilemma? Can we act on that decision? Can we live with our decision and its consequences? Will we start making excuses and justifications? It was an exception because he was evil, insane, a monster, a beloved brother, only son, etc. Does that make us hypocrites or just human? Can we still hold the moral high ground? What gives us the right to judge and the right to decide on someone else’s life and death?

What I liked about Monster is it’s unconventional story telling. While both Tenma and Johan were the main characters in the story, we don’t always see them. The story focus shifted between multiple characters, sometimes, to the point where Tenma and/or Johan disappeared for several episodes. The protagonist and antagonist are not necessarily always in the focus. In fact, Johan has very little screen time. But he remained constant presence. A thin, barely visible thread running throughout the entire show.

Monster started with ignorance. Tenma saved a boy, not knowing his nature or his crime. It ended with cruel clarity of coming full circle. Tenma no longer has the excuse of ignorance and naive idealism. Knowing who and what Johan is, would he still make the same decision? Or would he choose otherwise, correcting the mistake that changed and ruined his life? What would you choose? Who is the real monster?

Monster made use of children’s fairy tales as metaphors and counterpoints, linking the past to the present to the future. One of the mythic elements that was used several times was the importance of ‘name’. Name have power. Power of identity and power of identification. Name holds the power of existence and shackles of social behaviour. Why is a name important? What does being nameless means? Why does being nameless gives one incredible power and yet leaves one powerless?

Monster’s strength lies in its unapologetic look at all the shades being human. None of the characters are entirely evil or entirely good. It has a fantastic cast of voice actors. I was both surprised and impressed with Kiuchi Hidenobu as Tenma. Before Monster, I only knew him as Oshitari Yuushi, the guy with sexiest voice and kansai-ben accent in PoT.

A large part of my reason for watching anime  is the beautiful animation. Yes, I like pretty pictures. While the animation quality is very good, Monster’s artwork veers towards realistic rather than beautiful. While it is not ugly or distorted, the artwork alone would not have made me pick it up (as opposed to Trinity Blood). The artwork gets better as it progresses and now that I think about it … quite fitting for the story’s subject matter.

The first few episodes were slow and at first glance, appears to be boring hospital drama. However, once the main characters were established and their courses set, it ran full steam ahead. It could be painful to watch in places, but it leaves a deep impression.

I don’t really like to recommend things. Give suggestions, yes. But recommend, no. Simply put, I know I have pretty strange tastes and I tend to be more flexible and forgiving to flaws. Naturally, not many will find things that I like or accepted to their taste or standards. So I’ll only recommend something when it leaves a very strong and lasting impression and when asked specifically.

However, I’m very impressed with Monster and despite my initial reserve and reluctance to watch it. (In fact, I usually avoid thrillers and horrors and Monster is not what I normally search for when I shop for Anime – fantasy, sf, historical.) I highly recommend it for anyone who likes thriller, psychological drama and questioning the gray areas between philosophy, personal ethics, conformance and expectations.

*Underline = Surname

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