No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
I can hardly believe that the same mind that gave us the light-hearted martial arts romance comedy Yawara!: A Fashionable Judo Girl also gave birth to the superbly dark serial-killer thriller “Monster.”
The fact that Naoki Urasawa’s brain can operate so excellently in both the light and the dark is demonstrated that “Monster” was written from 1994-2001, while Urasawa was simultaneously writing another light-hearted sports comedy “Happy!,” which was then followed up with 20th Century Boys. Clearly, whatever genre Urasawa chooses to work in he can not help but excel.
This boxset, of course, is the anime adaptation of Urasawa’s plunge into the depths of the human psyche. It was adapted by Madhouse, a studio known for working closely with the author to deliver an animation project worthy of the original. Madhouse also works with Satoshi Kon (Paranoia Agent) and CLAMP (Cardcaptor Sakura) and their work on “Monster” features character-designs by long-time Studio Ghibli animator Kitaro Kosaka and is directed by directed by Masayuki Kojima (who worked on Samurai Champloo). In other words, this series has quite the pedigree.
The story begins with a provocative set-up. A skilled neurosurgeon, Dr. Tenma, defies the orders of the hospital Director to skip a procedure and operate on an important client, the mayor who has promised the hospital a large grant. Instead, Tenma takes the ethical path, obeying the established surgical order of patients and thus saving the life of a young boy who has arrived with a gunshot wound to the head. The decision costs Dr. Tenma his fiancé, his position at the hospital, and his reputation. It will also become the greatest moment of regret in his life, although not for those reasons.
After disappearing from the hospital, the boy Johan reappears in Tenma’s life nine years later, when it is revealed that he is a dangerous sociopath, a skilled killer who targets middle-aged couples for reasons not yet revealed. Johan himself feels indebted to Dr. Tenma for saving his life, and for that reason will not kill the doctor, although he revels in slaying right before Tenma’s eyes. Dr. Tenma is forced to confront the fact that he sacrificed everything, his fiancé, his position at the hospital, and his reputation, not to save an innocent boys life but only to unleash a monster on the world, one that what would have been far better off dying on the operating table so many years ago.
The story becomes even more complicated as Tenma is implicated in Johan’s murders, and is forced to flee the hospital in search of Johan’s twin sister Anna who also disappeared the same night. Tenma himself is pursued by Inspector Lunge, an honest yet obsessed officer of the law in the tradition of Javert from Les Miserables. Things spiral out of control, and soon Tenma realizes that there is only one course before him; to remove his mistake of so many years ago and take back the life that he saved.
If you can’t tell already, I was absolutely blown away by “Monster.” Not only is the story fresh and intense, but the tension of the series manages to last through every episode as new details and plots unfold. The series does not over-complicate itself, but works smoothly through each story beat and ends at just the right moment, making you scramble for the remote to skip to the next episode. The characters of Johan and Tenma are fully-developed, and at perfect odds with each other. There is a tension between the two that is palatable, which is quite amazing considering there are no live actors on the screen.
The animation is beautifully done, with the backgrounds being taken from locations in Germany where the story is set. In the beginning, there were a few obvious scenes of “just the mouth moving on a stagnant character,” but as the series progresses the movements get more fluid and everything comes together.
“Monster” also has the rare honor of being one of the few anime my wife watches with me. She is not a fan of anime in general, but she loved monster because it was more like a well-done TV show that happened to be animated than an “anime.”
There are some nice bonus features on this set as well, mainly on the third disk. I enjoyed the map of Germany, detailing the real-world locations of the story, and the director’s interview about why he wanted to adapt this particular series.
My only possible complaint is with the DVD package itself. This boxset has the first fifteen episodes of the series, released on three DVDs and each DVD has its own individual case. Maybe I have been spoiled, but I feel the modern standard is for a more robust release taking up less physical space. I have in my collection several “Complete Series” releases of twenty-four episodes on four DVDs in two slim-cases, taking up no more space than a single DVD case. This boxset could have put exactly the same content in one-third of the packaging, and considering that the series is seventy-four episodes long when you have the whole collection that will be about fourteen individual DVD cases that will need to be put somewhere, and my small Seattle apartment is already bursting at the seems with my anime collection. This style of packaging feels really out-dated, back when a anime box-set was a huge thing. I must say I prefer the modern style and am disappointed by the individual DVD cases.