The brilliant and successful neurosurgeon Dr. Tenma one day comes across a child and saves his life not knowing that he's actually a monster. Unaware of his mistake, Dr. Tenma is about to be dragged into the worst set of serial murder cases to have ever been staged in Europe.
Since Dr. Tenma resurrected the monster, he sets off on a long and difficult journey to destroy it.
Naoki Urasawa is a genius.
As much as I want to stray from the crazy-elitist-otaku mindset as possible, I can't do so given that Monster isn't a TV show as it is an investment in time, effort and after-series contemplation: I've spent literally weeks trying to interpret the series sufficiently (as evidenced by my 70+ paged analysis of the series that can be found on various message boards including the one here at themanime.org), but, surprisingly enough, at the end of my [long] journey was, not only my reaffirmation of the complexity of the raw plot, but the realization of how vastly uniform the themes and ideas of the series are. And the sheer intricacy of the various twists and turns that drive the motivation are really quite amazing, yet this is all structured in a manner that's not only incredibly cohesive, but also well planned-out and with logical exposition that becomes more apparent as the series progresses; this is to the extent that 2-3 minutes in the last episode can somehow make sense of an entire 74-episode TV series and tie everything together into a neat package of awesome (although, it did take some seriously comprehensive investigating for me to figure out the depth of this show's linchpin ending). Monster is that well thought-out and there probably won't be anything quite like this in anime until Urasawa's other monster, 20th Century Boys, is somehow adapted into a TV show (by Madhouse, no less). While I haven't actually read it yet, it's quite obvious what the end result will be given that 20th Century Boys has already surpassed Monster in terms of number of volumes released.
And if anyone was wondering: yes, I was conceited enough to write a long comprehensive analysis of the series (which, again, is more than 70-pages of consistently new content) just so that I could be able to make claims of the show's greatness just like what I'm doing now.
Talking about animation production: Madhouse was the best way to go; not only is Monster a complex series, but it's a beautiful one as well. I'd even go as far as to say that the adapted character designs are actually better than Urasawa's original drawings; majority of the time, the line-detail for the adapted designs in Monster are as exquisite as can be, yet efficient in terms of number of line strokes (the characters are detailed, but don't look cluttered). This is accompanied by the use of accurate and detailed shadow projection from different sources of light, which is ultimately complemented by Madhouse's skillful use of chiaroscuro (contrast between dark and light) to properly covey dramatic intensity and the illusion of real physical space that the characters can move and interact in. While I'm not exactly the art expert here, I somehow feel completely secure in saying that this series demonstrates such a high amount of aesthetical competence not commonly seen in a lot of other shows and is further proof as to why Madhouse is one of today's leading animation studios (and why Urasawa's catalogue always finds its way into their capable hands).
So, along with these beautiful renditions of Urasawa's character designs and use of stunning artistic techniques, we also get breath-taking recreations of real European cities (mainly in Germany), cars and whatever else may have been around in the 80s and 90s (such as those weird black slipper-shaped cell-phones that god knows why people used such ugly looking things back then before The Matrix came out); all this and animated ever so smoothly (most of the time) with that signature Madhouse quirk of using a lot of in-between frames to depict coherent movement. Along with the use of a color palette that's as rich and earthly as anything that may have been found on the animation cels of yore, the visuals of Monster are a real winner. Of course, it's impossible to keep things completely airtight in the art and animation department, but all things considering (it's 74 episodes long), the production staff was really able to hold it all together even with a few frame-rate drops and logical inconsistencies with the art here and there; I don't know which 3rd world country Masao Maruyama and his running-crew had to rob to produce this show, but it was well worth it given that this is probably the most consistently beautiful series I've ever had the pleasure of watching; adaptations generally don't get any better than this and I could probably crush a small child to death with the weight of this show's production values.
When it comes down to it, the fact that Urasawa's story was somehow even animated in its entirety is the real shock of it all. While, arguably, Madhouse was just following the path that was paved before them, it's no simple task when every other facet of production, from screenplay to animation to voice acting and so on, is taken into consideration. And it was at Masayuki Kojima's god-like hands that the series was able to come to life and exert that right amount of something to properly convey Urasawa's masterful drama and suspense; watch Kojima as he defies storytelling physics and moves through various plot and motivation threads in a timely manner with such ease! Also, not only does Kojima have a really sufficient understanding of how to interpret the dozens of interesting characters that come out of Urasawa's imagination, but he also has a real knack for portraying them in such a gloriously animated form; for one thing, Inspector Lunge's invisible keyboard just looks great animated and is always a thrill to watch. And given the production values, Kojima doesn't skip out on the opportunity of fully utilizing Urasawa's character designs, which are pretty much created with the intent of giving off maximum visual emotional expression, to their greatest potential; Kojima demonstrates a real finesse in squeezing out such a large spectrum of emotions from the many individually crafted character designs in the series, all the while maintaining a highly understated approach in doing so.
Naturally, the above could not have been as successful without Kuniaki Haishima's excellently orchestrated musical score (that actually sounds authentically European) backing the series as it weaves through its multi-layered drama and suspense. The use of several string and horn instruments that I can't even begin to identify with my ghastly unsophisticated ear for music was utterly impressive, to say the least. In fact, looking back on it, almost everyone that worked on Master Keaton, that other great Urasawa anime, was carried over onto the team that ultimately came out with the final product we are all familiar with today (I'm talking about the Monster anime).
But, with all this ambiguous praise being tossed around, people are probably wondering: what the hell is the series even about?
While the concept of there being a monster laid deep within all of us is usually a common theme that is at the forefront of the show's various provocative concepts, in the background, the series paints up a somewhat different picture that subtly moves along with the linear narrative and gets the viewer to contemplate the idea that it's possible that a true monster had been born into this world somehow; this as we watch Johan indirectly manipulate people to further his own agenda, of which is on another, much higher logic that both regular people and otaku probably don't run on.
Talking about Johan, for someone that we don't necessarily see for most of the series, Johan is a surprisingly deep and multi-dimensional villain as exemplified by the various murders and second-hand testimonials (from people that have had the simultaneously prodigious and horrific experience of interacting with Johan) that Johan leaves in his almost invisible, socially oblivious, wake. This is a villain whose enigmatic nature and rationale really only puts the series over the top in the intrigue department; the mysteries behind this person are so dark and compelling that it's hard to imagine there ever being a better villain in anime such as he. In contrast to the actual name of the series however, Johan is actually something of perfection incarnate (for starters, Johan looks like the European equivalent of bishounen). Here's a person who seemingly has everything in his grasp, but still does the most horrible and heartless things, yet we don't necessarily understand why he does these things until the very last moment of the series; this is mainly because of all the twist and turns that the series tends to take (and the twist and turns aren't all that implausible or contrived at that, which is excellent).
While that description sort of makes Johan sound like a total douche, my interest in how this character's mind works pretty much supersedes any amount of dislike for him that I can muster up; Johan is essentially too intricate and brilliant to be disliked, much less hated.
Going back a little: naturally, the viewer is required to suspend a certain amount of disbelief and make the necessary allowance for human nature as required by 98% of everything else in entertainment given that Johan's "magic" doesn't really work if you don't do the above, obviously.
As for our hero: Dr. Tenma is like an awesome cross between Black Jack and Master Keaton, but minus Black Jack's outlandish (but awesome) metaphorical and literal bitch-slapping and Keaton's somewhat exaggerated (but very charming) density; he's such a manly man, but is conveyed as such a believable man; I mean, this is outside of his mad doctor skills, of course, but the way that aspect of his character is done here is in a way where his skills are a significant part of who he is, not simply a trait added on in order to distinguish Tenma's character from the rest of the cast.
Because of Tenma's amazing skills as a doctor, he was able to see the value of life and how that all life was equal. But, because of this, he unknowingly brought a monster back from the brink of death and unleashed him upon this world once more.
An act of which shattered him as a doctor and as a man.
The weight of the show's characterization is on good shoulders when considering who it is that we have at both ends of the spectrum. Although, characterization is the least of the viewer's worries given that, along the way, there will be many other interesting and well-rounded characters; so much so that the mob would probably have to cut off my toes as well had they been collecting from me on the basis of how many interesting people in the series I was able to meet.
So, what's not to like about the series? It's probably the fact that you have to surrender a fraction of your social life to fully appreciate it and that its sheer length will just scare many potential viewers away. But, that's not a sufficient enough excuse (I'm talking about the length thing) given that, in the end, the length of the show was pretty much justified because of the fact that just about every can of whoop-ass, worms or what-have-you that the series opened, the series was able to properly close, albeit not as obviously as one might initially think (which is nice, since subtlety does have this certain edge over obviousness). To some extent though, there are things that are left to the viewer's interpretation, but this is only after demonstrating one way a similar event may have worked (like how Johan is able to intelligently manipulate people and accurately probe them in the process); it is because of this trait that the series allows one's imagination to run wild, yet not too wild. While I've never really picked up and read a book before (outside of Maddox's excellent foray into the machismo, "The Alphabet of Manliness"), I'm under the impression that Monster might actually be a somewhat similar experience given that the viewer is pretty much required to dig up information that appeared dozens of episodes ago and to connect the logical dots of how we were able to move from point A to point B. While this might sound haphazard as hell (and it usually is), it isn't, and that's what makes Monster such a great series.
While there probably has been many a great anime TV series before it, Madhouse and Masayuki Kojima's adaptation of Monster is probably one of the very best. Ironically, much like the anime adaptation of another Urasawa work, Master Keaton, it's the best show that no one watched.
With its sophisticated storytelling and complex plot weaving, memorable characters, godly production values and excellent pacing, it's not hard to guess what my final rating for Monster will be.
Five Stars — Dominic Laeno
Recommended Audience: The show can be very disturbing most of the time, but when it comes to it, the show can also be downright brutal for what it shows and doesn't show the viewer. Also, considering the fact that the story, even though it starts out simple enough, is incredibly meticulous, Monster is really only open to older and/or more astute audiences that have a lot of will and the patience to make it through that 27-hour long journey of twists, turns and non-linear exposition.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub
Review Status: Full (74/74)
Monster © 2004 Naoki Urasawa/Madhouse/Shogakukan Productions Co., Ltd.
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