What you’re about to read are my initial thoughts and post-week musings of Naoki Urusawa’s dramatic suspense series, Monster. I wanted to get out my theories and ideas on the manga before I seek out and read others’ opinions through the power of the Internet, lest my easily persuaded mind be influenced by the more well-worded and coherent thoughts of others ;)
I encourage those who’ve read the series to share some of their thoughts and opinions as well. It’s truly a series that warrants discussion and I look forward to hearing what others thought.
Keep in mind that the following contains discussion pertaining directly to the end of the series. I’ve made note in the text below the cut where those who’ve not finished the series should stop reading if they wish to avoid spoilers.
Overall, Monster was one heck of a read. Never have I had a series that left me so desperately looking for the next volume leading me to pull together both the time and money to purchase and read the series, start to finish, in a little over two weeks.
Naoki Urusawa’s ability to interweave the at-first seemingly unconnected lives of complete strangers was enthralling. Admittedly I find series with too many characters can get confusing and drown out the story itself, but that wasn’t the case here. A combination of episodic story telling and amazingly diverse, plus functionally and realistically simple, character designs made the whole thing work. In fact, that’s what I’d say about the series in general.
It just worked.
The story knew all the right ways to get you attached to even the seediest of characters, and to feel positively revolted by others, in a way that made every event significant and all moments worth waiting for. An example of this was my thoughts towards Dr. Tenma’s ex-fiancée, Eva, whose materialistic and selfish attitude had me cursing each page she showed up. By the time I’d gotten to the end however, I realized I felt sympathy for the broken woman and was hopeful she’d get the chance to move onto a better life for herself.
Character attachments like this were evident from the get-go. The first volume of Monster is an emotional masterpiece all on its own, with Dr. Tenma’s horrific realization that in a bout of moral equality, he may’ve inadvertently saved the life of a true monster. Immediately you feel attached to Dr. Tenma as you watch him punished for an attempted good deed. I had my doubts that such an impacting start could carry itself on for eighteen volumes but I was more than thrilled to see it done consistently and with such a skillful degree of talent that it seemed close to literal perfection.
Warning: Those who haven’t finished reading the series should stop here to avoid spoilers!
Though a series that has been full of many regrettable deaths, none really hit me as hard as the death of Mr. Grimer. He was one of the characters that truly surprised me the most; from his past in Kinderheim to the gut-wrenching moment he shared with a young boy on the bridge (and in contrast, the cute moment with the child and shoes during his initial introduction). I always felt such melancholy from him behind that forced smile and felt joy with each step he took towards becoming what he defined as more human. I found many of his moments on page and verbal lines to be the most memorable of the series, such as when he shares his deepest belief that a person’s ability to find love and enjoyment in everyday experiences are what truely make them human.
It’s these kinds of truths that the story is littered with and in a way that manages to make what seems so obvious, be so completely compelling to think about. Through his loss of the most basics of human characteristics, and in turn the way he deals with it, it really made me think about what separates simple existence and truly being alive.
Similar to those thoughts were those I got from Johan’s end goal of a “perfect suicide”. What an amazing, though thoroughly bone-chilling, concept. To kill all those affiliated with you before taking your own life so that there is literally no trace of you left in the world. Ultimately of course such a thing would be impossible for Johan who has left rippling impacts throughout the world (most in due to those connected one way or another with Dr. Tenma) but he certainly did a logistically, and sadistically, thorough job leading up to the events of Ruhenheim.
Johan and Anna’s connection was also a thrilling part of the story in that I couldn’t wait for all the conjoined scenes and foreshadowed moments to finally come together, especially in the final few books. Like Johan himself, I’m still not sure what really happened when the moment came that Anna was pulled to the Red Rose Mansion. Was their mother trying to save Anna or Johan? And why were they both dressed as girls in the first place? But the end result of that life-changing event was an amazing testimony to the fragility and empathy of a child in that it was Johan who took the dark memories of his sister and grew through them. Anna’s horrific realization of this showed her just how easily it could’ve been her instead of Johan that took the lives of so many people.
On that note, I found Anna to be incredible female character, especially one in a series so dominated by males. She goes through unimaginable events including witnessing the death of loved ones, shooting her own brother and battling amnesia throughout the story as she struggled to regain memories she’d lost. She grows through these trials and evolves to become one of the series’ strongest characters, one willing to do what needed to be done, including stopping to the levels required to achieve her goals, but never giving up her integrity in doing so. While I pegged her as a damsel at first, she really took charge of her life and I admired her strength in doing so.
Coming to the end of the volume eighteen, I heard that a lot of people took issue with the final chapter of the series. Admittedly I did as well at first. While the series ultimately summed itself up in a way that was generally fulfilling, I felt like the eighteen volumes were building readers up to something more than just the resolution of Johan. The orphanage, the experiments at Red Rose Manor; while the mysteries behind these were exposed, I felt they weren’t as fleshed out as I would’ve liked. I thought Johan, as integral as he was, was merely a pinnacle puzzle piece in an otherwise much larger web that never felt truly wrapped up by the time I closed the final book.
The semi happily-ever-after epilogue for the surviving cast was appeasing though, allowing us readers the emotional resolution we were undoubtedly hoping for. I know one of the biggest moments of relief was when Inspector Lunge admitted that Johan did indeed exist! Seeing Tenma’s name finally cleared after months of watching him fall from prestigious doctor to wanted vigilante was a glorious final reprieve from the suspense of him chasing Johan and eluding capture for so long.
Easily one of the most surprising moments of the series for me, due to a dramatic, unexpected two-page spread, was the final scene with Johan. It also left me feeling a little negative about the series initially since I felt like I’d been blindsided from real resolution. Dr. Tenma walks out of the room and then Johan is gone. It felt like a suspenseful ‘it isn’t truly over!’ sort of ending initially, and then after a moment’s pause to think, I got the feeling it was a testimony of sorts to Investigator Lunge’s theory that Johan and Dr. Tenma were actually the same person (which of course wouldn’t make any sense considering events). Then I thought, was it Dr. Tenma imagining such a conversation with Johan, after speaking to Johan and Anna’s mother, and Johan had actually passed away before he could reveal what he learned to him? I thought over so many possibilities for this scene, trying to find one that clicked for me.
However, like many scenes in this series, this final moment was best given time to sink in and eventually I came to a decision that seemed to work best for me, one that I felt was obscure enough to suit this psyhchologically-twisted-at-time series, but also one that gave some conclusion to the series-given motivations for Johan (ala the storybooks). Johan not being there gave it a sense of closure, a sort of ‘now the monster is gone’ moment as he found salvation in the knowledge that he did in fact have a real name. The disappearance of ‘the monster’, as Johan was referred to throughout the series, seemed like the final step in neatly tying up all lose-ends of the series. It reminded me also of when the theory circled about in the story about Johan having two personalities. Peace found and the darker of the two no longer needed? Mind you, where did Johan go in the physical sense after we see the empty bed? No idea, and I’m not sure if Naoki Urusawa meant it to be literal or figurative, but all in all, it seems much less relevant to me now than it did initially.
While ultimately I think I found the journey more exciting than the end destination, it was still a strong finish for a series that never slowed down a moment and never failed to impress me. I also think that different readers will take away different thoughts about the ending because its just vague enough to be very open to interpretation and I think a series this compelling having a perfectly clear-cut ending would’ve been a disappointment in itself. Overall, I highly recommend Monster for those looking for a mature story with some white-knuckled suspense, brilliantly interwoven plot elements and cinematic flair. I for one look forward to enjoying more of Naoki Urusawa’s work in the near future.