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Greg reviews every manga series he reads, Part 5: Monster

by  in Comic News Comment
Greg reviews every manga series he reads, Part 5: <i>Monster</i>

Hey, I finally got around to reading another manga series! And this one is actually complete!

Our latest entry is Naoki Urasawa’s Monster (sorry, but that’s the official title), an 18-volume opus published on these shores by Viz Signature. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s written and drawn by Naoki Urasawa, with the English adaptation by Agnes Yoshida while there are several English translators (what’s the difference between “adaptation” and “translation,” I wonder?). Steve Dutro letters this sucker. All 18 volumes, I think, are widely available. Or maybe they’re not. I haven’t looked recently because, well, I own them all.

Our own Danielle Leigh (don’t we all miss Danielle?) wrote about Monster a bit last year, and I encourage you all to read her post, ’cause it’s neat (although there are some spoilers). I’m certainly not going to be as in-depth as she is, even though she only covered the first seven volumes. I’m basically going to go over the plot and discuss some of Urasawa’s bigger themes.

I’m probably going to SPOIL some stuff, too, so watch out! But I won’t spoil the ending. That would be mean.

The main plot is fairly straightforward, which isn’t always the case with big sprawling manga. In 1986, a brilliant neurosurgeon, Kenzo Tenma, who is working in Germany, is ordered to save the life of an important man rather than a Turkish laborer who came into the hospital first. The next time this happens, he saves the life of a young boy with a gunshot wound in the head rather than the mayor, and when the mayor dies, Tenma’s life is ruined. His engagement to the daughter of the hospital administrator ends, and his now ex-future father-in-law tells him he’ll never advance in the political structure of the hospital. Soon afterward the administrator and two high-placed doctors are murdered, the young boy and his twin sister disappears, and life goes on. Ten years later, Tenma begins to realize that the young boy might not be all that innocent, and he spends the rest of the book searching for him and trying to clear his name, as suspicion for the original murders has begun to fall on him. In order to prove his innocence, he needs to find the boy, Johan, but as he learns more about Johan, he discovers that he may have saved a vicious serial killer the night he operated on the boy. So that’s the basic plot – Tenma searching for Johan, who is now in his early 20s and apparently insinuating himself into many positions of power in the new, post-Cold War Germany. What’s his plan? Well, Tenma has to discover that, too.

Quite a lot of Monster is window-dressing, to be frank. Urasawa brings up German re-unification and the horrors of East Germany, especially as we learn more about the genesis of Johan, but he never delves too far into it. The main impetus of turning Johan eeeevillllll is Kinderheim 511, an East German orphanage where the children of criminals were housed (“criminals,” or course, encompassing political dissidents in East Germany) and where the state officials performed experiments on them.

The nature of these experiments remain vague, but it’s clear that Johan, either because of the experiments or because of something innate, was the orphanage’s big “success” – it’s implied he organized a massacre at the orphanage in which almost everyone was killed. Johan does this a lot – manipulates people behind the scenes, rarely getting his hands dirty. It’s what makes him so elusive. Other political aspects of the book feel a bit tacked-on and skimmed-over, as Urasawa needs to set his book in Germany and the Czech Republic in the mid-1990s, so of course he’s going to mention current events, but even though he seems to place Johan at the center of some of these events, the political aspects of the story remain only to provide a veneer of “relevance.” Ultimately, it’s unimportant that Johan grew up in an East German orphanage. It could have been anywhere.

That doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t zip along, because it does, and a lot of that is because Urasawa tries to turn this into a political thriller. On a surface level, he succeeds, as Johan insinuates himself into the inner circle of a major financial figure and inspires all sorts of political extremists to action. So we have right-wing Germans, doing what they think is Johan’s will, trying to burn down the Turkish section of town, for instance. But that’s not really the point of the series. Obviously, in the beginning we’re meant to believe Johan is the monster of the title, but Urasawa, rather skillfully, gradually shows that Johan, for all his talents, might not be unique. Urasawa’s contention that a monster lives in all of us is obvious but unobtrusive, so it never feels like he’s pushing that thought on the reader. He wants us to see a vast cast of people, all with different backgrounds and personalities and agendas, and realize that there is something that pushes each and every one of them into the dark aspects of their minds. In this way, he can wonder if Johan was simply pushed too far, and if someone else would have turned out the same way as he did. Again, this is nothing terribly unique in literature, but it’s often either far more heavy-handed than this or, conversely, brought up briefly and then ignored (this is often the case in action movies). As Urasawa has the space, he can make this a thrilling action comic and still manage to delve into the philosophical problems with Johan and the people around him.

Part of the reason he does this is because Johan and Dr. Tenma, the two “main” characters, form somewhat of an emotional vacuum at the center of this series. Johan is a bit of a mystery, because Urasawa never spends too much time with him. We see the effects of his passing, but not necessarily a great deal of his involvement with events.

His involvement with Schunwald, the financial giant, is perhaps the most we see him directly, and even then, he’s something of a cipher. We see him a bit in flashbacks, but Urasawa often toys with the memories that the characters have of their pasts, so even in the past we’re unsure how important Johan really is. Johan stubbornly refuses to be categorized, and a good deal of the series is about others’ attempts to define him. Yes, he’s a monstrous presence in the book, but nobody really knows who he is or even what he wants. In the end, Urasawa implies that it doesn’t really matter. Similarly, while we know a lot more about Tenma, even he remains something of an enigma. He’s on a mission, but like Johan, a lot of the book deals with people he’s left behind as he travels across Germany and the Czech Republic. Tenma is obviously in the book far more than Johan is, but even he disappears for long stretches of time, as other characters come to grips with what he’s doing. Tenma remains, like Johan, weirdly aloof from life – after his fiancée dumps him, he retreats from emotional attachments because either they’re too painful for him or because his life has become one of pursuit and revenge. He becomes protective of several people – Johan’s sister, Anna/Nina, who has secrets of her own; Dieter, a boy who was abused in much the same way Johan was but who does not turn into a “monster”; even the young girl trying to provide health care for the poor who needs Tenma’s help (and whose name escapes me – sorry!). Tenma also provides inspiration for many characters – he’s almost too perfect, as he puts himself in danger plenty of times because he’s helping someone out. Because of Tenma’s weird separation from society (Urasawa awkwardly inserts a brief scene where we learned he cheated at university, but it almost heightens his “goodness” because of the circumstances under which he admits it), it’s difficult to care about the two characters ostensibly at the manga’s core.

Urasawa is hinting that in order to stop Johan, Tenma must become as monstrous as his target, but we never actually believe that Tenma will be able to kill Johan. This robs the narrative of a lot of tension.

Urasawa’s implication that everyone has a monster inside them, however, drives the book and keeps it interesting when the two main characters cannot. Anna Lieber, Johan’s sister (she is later known as Nina Fortner because she doesn’t remember her old name, which wasn’t her real name anyway), is a prime example of this, as she is struggling to live a normal life even though she has these horrors in the past coming at her. As she begins to regain the memories of what was done to her and Johan, the story becomes a bit more convoluted but also more gripping, as Urasawa blends her memories with Johan’s and makes us wonder exactly to whom these things happened. Why did Anna grow into a strong and stable young lady while her brother became a sociopath? Another survivor of the orphanage, Wolfgang Grimmer, takes Urasawa’s theme to further extremes – he is a mild-mannered freelance journalist who, it seems, becomes a fearsome fighter when his life is threatened … but he doesn’t know what he does, as he blacks out when it happens. Urasawa never shows us this “character” – the Magnificent Steiner – just the aftermath, and he leaves it open to speculation what exactly happens to Grimmer when these transformations occur. Grimmer also has to train himself to smile and react emotionally to external stimuli, because the orphanage destroyed his capacity for that sort of thing. Grimmer is the tragic hero that Tenma can’t be – he has done terrible things but is working to overcome them, because he doesn’t want to be a monster.

In a less obvious way, the other characters embody this struggle as well. Eva, Tenma’s fiancée, realizes that dumping Tenma was perhaps a foolish move, especially because every other man in her life treats her poorly.

She decides to kill Tenma, but as she tracks him, she starts her own journey to maturity and the conquering of her own “monster.” Inspector Lunge of the BKA is convinced that Tenma is the murderer, and once he hears of Johan, he’s convinced that “Johan” is an alternate personality of Tenma (an intriguing possiblity that is never explored by Urasawa). Lunge is so obsessed with his job that his wife and pregnant daughter leave him, and while he never struggles, per se, with this “monster” that drives him, it’s clear that Urasawa is showing another facet of this war within. Urasawa even tantalizingly hints that Lunge might be experiencing a personality fracture himself when he starts to pretend to be Tenma in order to get inside his target’s mindset. Even the far more minor characters are shown to be struggling with their own monsters, and Urasawa does a very good job showing different characters with different problems with which they all need to deal. He’s able to create very real characters in many different professions, so the fact that almost all of them are struggling with similar issues doesn’t become annoying. Each character helps build this grand theme that reaches its apotheosis in Johan and Tenma. While they aren’t the most compelling characters, their internal battles are the grandest, so in the end, they need to take center stage.

I’ve reached a point in my writing where I don’t often neglect art anymore, but I’m going to here. Just look at the examples of what Urasawa’s art looks like and you’ll get a good idea.

He doesn’t do too much that’s fascinating in the artwork, but one thing he does well is keep the large cast of characters nicely delineated, so that it’s very rare that the reader wonders who the character is, even if it’s been a while since we’ve seen them. The only time it happened for me, if I recall, was when Urasawa shifted to the south of France for the story of a retired policeman, and as we only saw him briefly prior to this story, it took another character commenting on who he is for me to remember him. But that’s the only time I can think of. Mostly, Urasawa does a nice job showing the wide variety of faces and body shapes, and he does a nice job with, say, Tenma’s physical breakdown or the fact that the sociopath Grimmer seems to resemble the “respectable” Lunge in facial expressions and body language. It’s part of the way he makes his theme more subtle than it might have been otherwise. It’s not mind-blowing art, but it does work well in the service of the story.

Monster is an ambitious manga that doesn’t quite achieve what it seems like Urasawa wants to achieve, especially with regard to the main plot. Johan is an enigma, Tenma is a saint, and neither holds our attention like they should. However, because Urasawa allows these two men to engage in their game a bit obsessively, he can show us all the characters they touch, and those are the people who make this a fascinating read. It’s a gripping thriller, if a bit hollow – the final few volumes, however, when Johan orchestrates something horrible, are tense and well done. While we can’t quite commit to the great war between Tenma and Johan, overall, Monster is a good look into human personality and what drives people to great heights and depraved lows. Plus, there are creepy children’s books! Everyone loves those!

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