Sunday, February 2, 2014

Monster: Everything You Ever Thought Is Wrong

Sometime after writing my review for Serial Experiments Lain, I visited an IMDB message board.  One of the threads was "Which anime series are like Lain?", and one suggestion was Monster.  I will sometimes watch the opening episode of an anime series out of curiosity.  But Monster was the first time I did it and was hooked.

That is saying something, considering that getting hooked meant committing to a 74-episode series, far longer than any other anime I had watched.  But one episode led to another, which led to another, and before I knew it, I had finished the entire series in less than a week.

The anime is closely based on Naoki Urasawa's manga series of the same name, which ran between 1994 and 2001 in 18 volumes.  The anime series aired in Japan in 2004 and 2005, then in the United States in 2009 and 2010 on the SyFy Channel.

Plot Synopsis

Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a Japanese man living in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1986, at a time when Germany still exists in two halves.  Though a brilliant neurosurgeon, he is frequently ordered around and overshadowed by Dr. Heinemann, the director of his hospital and father of Tenma's fiance, Eva.  After Tenma is condemned by a Turkish widow for operating on an opera singer who came to the hospital after her husband (thus leaving her husband to die), Tenma starts to question the hospital's priorities.

Deciding that every life is of equal value, Tenma ignores Dr. Heinemann's next order to operate on the city's mayor and instead chooses to save the life of a 10 year old boy who arrived at the hospital first.  The boy, Johann Liebert, is the son of refugees from East Germany who were later murdered.  Johann himself was shot in the head, and only his twin sister, Anna, was unharmed.  Tenma saves the boy's life, while the mayor ends up dying.  In retaliation for Tenma's disobedience, Dr. Heinemann demotes him and Eva unceremoniously dumps him.  Tenma visits Johann while the boy is still seemingly unconscious and, in a fit of anger, declares that he wishes Dr. Heinemann were dead.  The next day, the boy and his sister have vanished without a trace.  Soon after that, Dr. Heinemann and two other doctors are dead.

Flash forward nine years, and Tenma is now Chief of Neurosurgery at the hospital.  After
Dr. Tenma hunts for Johann while he himself is pursued.
treating a critically wounded thief, he encounters Johann once more and learns the chilling truth: the boy he saved in 1986 was a serial killer.

That is just the first three or four episodes of the series, set up for Tenma's years-long quest to find Johann and atone for his "mistake" by killing him.  The quest takes Tenma all over Germany and into the Czech Republic.  Along the way, we meet several characters, including a grown up Anna; psychiatrists Dr. Gillen and Dr. Reichwein; Dieter, an abused boy; Wolfgang Grimmer, a freelance journalist; and, most notably, Inspector Lunge.  The almost robotic Lunge pursues Tenma from place to place, certain that he is the one who murdered the three doctors at his hospital.

Nothing is what it seems, and just as one mystery about Johann is solved, more questions emerge.  Yet throughout the series, the overriding question is whether taking even one life is worth it to save countless others.  Also, what happens when people are stripped of their identities, right down to their names?

Non-Spoiler Discussion

The only way I can really discuss this series is to break it into "Non-Spoiler" and "Spoiler" sections.  So those who have never seen Monster, be warned that in the final section, I will be discussing major reveals about the story and characters.

If I were to give Monster a score, it would be 8/10 or 9/10.  It is so close to perfect, but falls just short.  Yet even as some things will leave you dissatisfied, you will be enthralled by the mystery as it slowly unfolds.  I watched the dubbed version of Monster online, and the ending of each episode set up such a perfect cliffhanger, I immediately clicked on the next episode.  I hadn't done that since watching Breaking Bad on Netflix.

Characters.  One reason the story is so gripping is that it introduces several great characters, such as Wolfgang Grimmer, whose beaming face conceals a tortured past.  Or Anna, whose attempts at a normal life keep getting destroyed by her brother.  They become co-main characters with Tenma, and during several episodes when Tenma is not on screen, you don't miss him because the other characters are great as well.  Even characters you dislike initially undergo changes throughout the series and become different people afterward.

Wolfgang Grimmer, concealing a dark past.
In fact, it takes a special series to make you care about characters who appear in just one episode, like Tenma's ammunitions instructor with the adopted daughter, or the Vietnamese teenager running a medical clinic by herself (technically she appears in two episodes, but her second appearance is brief).  That is one reason why many consider Monster to be Urasawa's best work.

Character Animation.  The character animation is not the best ever, but it is still pretty good, and noteworthy mainly for its design.  Many animes will draw all of the characters a certain way and just give them blond or red hair to denote that they are Caucasian.  Monster is the first anime that I've seen that makes an effort to distinguish the European character designs from the non-European ones.  Sure, you have characters like Anna and Johann, whose large eyes and button noses would be at home in any anime, but they are the exception.  Many of the Europeans in Monster have broad faces and large noses, or long boney faces like Lunge or Grimmer.

Otherwise, while it can get annoying seeing the characters speak without their faces moving, the animation effectively showcases emotion.  Hairs suddenly flickering, bodies contorting, eyes widening.  The camera angles make scenes appear dynamic even when very little movement occurs.

Setting.  One thing that also distinguishes Monster is that it is set in a very specific time and place.  As Tenma learns more about Johann's past, he learns about Germany's past as well -- specifically the brutal oppression tactics used by the East Germans.  Tenma's quest through Germany and into Prague means lots of gorgeous shots of German countryside, as well as landmarks like Heidelberg Castle and the Charles Bridge.  

Music.  Apart from the haunting intro, the music is not hugely memorable, except for being rather overwrought at times.  Yet you realize, as you go further into the series, that such music sets the mood for the often outrageous acts about to occur.

Inspector Lunge, an example of Monster's distinctive character
Themes.  The importance of each individual is the major theme, and from that comes others, such
as the importance of maintaining your identity, and what happens when that is taken away from you.  Character names are of the utmost importance, as well as individual memories.  While the series can hit these themes a little too hard at times, it is gratifying to see characters take solace in their name and their self worth during times of crisis.

So those are my non-spoilery impressions of the series.  I would encourage anyone to check it out, especially if they have a few days off.

Spoiler Discussion

With each episode, Monster promises two things: (1) to reveal what happened to Johann to turn him into a serial killer, and (2) to reveal what his end goal is, and why.

Unfortunately, the series does not fulfill either promise.  Instead, I went away thinking how remarkable it was that Anna Liebert remained sane.

In a series filled with memorable characters, Johann Liebert ends up being the least interesting.  For many episodes, we are led to believe that Johann became a "monster" after being tortured for months in the Red Rose Mansion near Prague, and that his tendencies were perfected at 511 Kinderheim.  Instead, the major series twist is that Anna was the twin dragged off and experimented on by Franz Bonaparta.

While Anna has periodic mental breakdowns, she manages to remain remarkably stable, despite having more reason to go batshit than anyone.  After all, she was given over to Bonaparta and his followers, tortured, and witnessed the deaths of 46 people.  Then her brother started killing their adult caregivers and she shot him in the head.  Then her brother killed her adopted parents, the Fortners.  Then he nearly burned her alive in a university library.  Yet somehow she comes through just as strong and determined as ever.

For that matter, so do many of the characters.  Dieter manages to overcome his recent past with an abusive former operator of 511 Kinderheim, becoming an ally and friend to the other main characters.  As for Grimmer, despite his confessions that 511 Kinderheim left him unable to process normal human emotion, we frequently saw a man who cared about other people and knew how to appreciate life.

The real mystery is how Anna maintained her sanity.
Yet somehow Johann remains perpetually scarred by his experiences... despite the fact that his actual suffering was far less than the others'.  Moreover, the reveals about Johann do not answer the question of when he became the "monster."  Based on flashbacks, he may have been born bad -- note the squinty eyes and smirky lips when he welcomed his sister home.

Another viewer put forth the theory that Johann's actions were motivated by guilt.  In the flashback, his mother initially offered him to Bonaparta, before changing her mind and offering Anna.  Maybe Johann internalized Anna's experiences due to the misguided belief that he should have been the one to face the torture, not his beloved sister.

Or maybe it was a twisted sense of envy?  Anna got to be the "special" one, experimented on and admired by Bonaparta and his followers, while Johann had to sit back and wait.  Maybe that was why Johann went around Prague dressed as Anna, so he could feel what it was like to be her.  For a long time, I was convinced we would learn that Johann had once been female, but Bonaparta's "experiments" turned him into a male.  That would mess anyone up.

The theory that makes the least sense is the one suggested by Johann himself: that he resented his mother for loving him less than Anna.  That he always wondered whether she meant to offer him up, but got confused over which twin he was.  I could see how that would be upsetting, but still... he wasn't the one who went.  Murdering dozens of people seems like an awfully big temper tantrum for so small a reason.

So I've just spent paragraphs talking about a character I said was the least interesting.  Yet it's really because so little is explained in the series that we must speculate about Johann's motives.

The second-least interesting character is, believe it or not, Tenma.  Tenma's moral dilemma is interesting, but the character does not spend a lot of time really exploring it.  Instead, he reluctantly searches for Johann, knowing he must kill him, while saving the life of anyone else he finds.  After a while, you know that Tenma will never pull the trigger.  He does shoot Roberto in the library, but only when he is about to be killed himself.  It would have been interesting if Roberto died, and Tenma had to deal with the guilt despite shooting in self defense.

It is never clear what Johann wants for Tenma.  He lets him live early on because Tenma saved his life, yet engineers an elaborate massacre so Tenma would know what it felt like to be completely alone.  Was this Johann's plan all along, or something he came up with once he realized that Tenma would never stop pursuing him?  

Non-Spoilery Conclusion

Again, Monster is a great series as a whole, and deserves to be considered one of the best anime series of all time.  Once you start watching, you won't be able to stop, and its themes and characters will continue to resonate long afterward.

The above images and video are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

No comments:

Post a Comment