Groundbreaking shows are becoming exceedingly rare as studios produce more "sure-thing" hits that nevertheless appeal only to die-hard fans. Still, once in a while, an anime comes along that redefines what can be done within the medium. Rarely do these productions find imitators; they are simply too unique to re-create. I daresay with the recent tragic passing of Satoshi Kon, we will see even less true creativity on display. Many people adore groundbreaking works like Wings of Honneamise...but who in the modern era is willing to take that kind of risk? It's especially difficult granted that masterful art often doesn't appeal to the average cinemagoer or couch potato...it's too slow, it's too heady, it's too different. But we need envelope-pushers, not in terms of graphic content but in terms of studios and directors willing to do something new and innovative. Even when those shows turn out less than perfect, they still have an incredible impact.
Frankly, we need more shows like Monster.
Monster is not a great-looking anime. It has a slow start. At times, the plot seems to derail entirely. But like a gigantic puzzle, when the pieces of Monster begin to come together, the result is astounding. It's a show that rewards the patient and faithful viewer and demands your attention if you are to make sense of its riddles, but those same caveats make it a show that, despite its length, invites repeat viewings. Its flaws are more obvious, its rewards more subtle. But for the mature viewer, it's a winner.
Tenma, a brilliant Japanese neurosurgeon working in Germany, has got it made -- between his promising career and his engagement to the hospital director's daughter Eva, life is about to take off. But in a moment where his conscience collides with his career, Tenma saves a young boy who's been shot in the head rather than operating on the local mayor. When said politician dies, Tenma suddenly becomes persona non grata with the upper echelons of the staff and Eva. That is, until people in the way of Tenma's career start dying.
Move forward a number of years, and Tenma's in a good place. He's now chief of surgery, and while rumors still swirl around him about the deaths, the police never found any evidence. But then a strange young man named Johan re-enters Tenma's life, and soon he finds himself on the run. An inspector named Lunge believes Tenma to be responsible for a number of murders and is determined to hunt him down.
At this point, and for close to twenty episodes, the series resembles The Fugitive, the old American thriller where a doctor goes on the run to prove that he didn't kill his wife and to find the one-armed man who did. But then things get much darker as conspiracies and sinister plans come to light. Tenma's journey leads him to unravel the mysteries of the psychotic Johan and his twin sister Nina. As he does, his own morality comes into question as he trades his surgeon's knife for a gun. Can he end another person's life, even if that person happens to be a monster?
As I alluded to before, Monster is not something is immediately visually appealing. The anime is very faithful to its source manga, and the character designs (especially of women) can be downright ugly at times. The show takes place primarily in Germany both before and after the fall of the Berlin wall, and the dreariness is transparent. The animation itself is often wanting; for example, there's a scene where Tenma talks to a man outside a train station for quite a long time, and nobody in the background moves. You simply have to stretch your imagination and go with it. On the other hand, the feel of middle continental European architecture is nailed. What the show doesn't have in full motion, it has in light and color. It makes simple eye movements count. In some ways, from an artistic standpoint at very least, it is the dream of anyone who's thought their favorite anime didn't stick closely enough to the manga. You could argue that perhaps the artwork is too faithful. But that's nitpicking.
Where Monster is truly groundbreaking is in its storytelling. Monster is most akin to intense American serials like 24 and Lost, where there are mysteries to be solved and the thought that if you don't pay attention for five minutes, you may miss something vital. The tapestry Monster weaves is intricate, jumping back and forth in time, playing with the audience's expectations of who knows what and who's linked to whom. For its first quarter, Monster is a bit too predictible, with a few instances where I found myself thinking, "This is good, but it isn't as wonderful as I'd been led to believe." But I've come to realize that it's that first quarter that gives a deep moral center to Tenma that is essential by the time the conclusion rolls around.
No one can consider the final product simple, however. The show tries some audacious gambits, such as leaving its main character out of the show entirely for several episodes to introduce other characters. Does it require patience? Absolutely. This kind of thing just isn't done -- it would be like Jack Bauer dropping out to attend to his injuries for a couple hours and letting other people catch the terrorists. However, it makes you realize how much we've grown fond of Tenma and want him to succeed. I can't even think of the last time I've seen a show try something that bold...and Monster does it early on. Not only that, but Monster is as simple or as complex as the viewer wants it to be. There are layers upon layers to this thing. It's less a jigsaw puzzle and more like a fiendishly clever multi-dimensional Rubik's Cube. Yet it can be appreciated on any number of levels.
This situation does make it difficult to figure out the best way to watch the series. I believe that Monster is hampered slightly by the Japanese insistence that every animated TV show must be only a half-hour long. I think that the show could have been more focused and slightly easier to follow had it been given an hour-long slot. I know that's unthinkable in the current climate, but nevertheless. When Viz aired the show on SyFy, they showed it in hour-long blocks, and I think that's the minimum way to watch the show. This series calls for long, uninterrupted viewings if at all possible.
Getting back to the story itself...what makes Monster so memorable are its striking characters who are caught in a web of murder and treachery, yet are deeply rooted in reality. Monster winds up being a first-class horrific thriller, and the reason it terrifies is because you can believe it could all happen in the real world. There are no mecha or tentacled beasts (at least on a literal level), but there aren't any high-school kids either. These adults are complex, with the capacity for great kindness, unbelievable violence, love, jealousy, rage, pride, and forgiveness.
Take for example Lunge and Eva. Lunge's hunt for Tenma, spurred on by his brilliant deductive mind, becomes obsessive when he rejects the answers in front of him to prove that Tenma's the guilty party. His pride costs him virtually everything, and whenever he shows up, we cringe. Yet Lunge is not a bad man, merely an incredible detective who's come across a case that doesn't correspond with his own sense of reality. Meanwhile, Eva is deeply conflicted, an alcoholic that despises Tenma on the outside but still deeply loves him. She is desperately self-centered and is, on the whole, an unpleasant person. Yet she too lives within her own moral world and acts accordingly. We may not like her, but each of us knows someone very similar.
Viewers who enjoy clear-cut heroes and villains may not find this to their liking, and neither will those who are squeamish about a few things. For a television series, there is a lot of graphic violence. We usually only see the aftermath of events, but they are gruesome. Moreover, the storyline deals with the physical and psychological abuse of children. Youngsters are depicted as capable of great cruelty, and often other youngsters are the targets. My wife watched the show with me, but she found the series too brutal and disturbing to be really satisfying entertainment. While I disagree with her assessment, I grant you this: Monster is dark, dark, dark. The longer it goes, the blacker it gets.
Monster has some imperfections that will gnaw at you if you let them. A few of the members of the large cast are unnecessary, particularly a child named Dieter who stays in the proceedings far longer than can be explained. The dub takes a while to get on its feet; for a while, it's too stilted, and the actors feel their way through it, though it improves markedly by the middle. I got the sense that things could have been shortened; there is some filler here and there, and while the ending is unwaveringly intense, it's too long. The show always seems a bit maudlin when its characters grieve. Those are the facts, and if you can't accept them, Monster may be a pass for you.
But as for me, I can only think of a few times when I have been this engaged by an anime. It is so rich that the problematic bits simply washed away. I want my anime to have depth and meaning and engage with morality and ethics. For all the insane plots of anime, I got into this hobby because somehow anime can, at its best, provide us with deep insight into the human condition. Monster does that throughout its run.
Viz owns the rights to this title in the US, and they have proven yet again why they are by far the worst anime distributor on this side of the Pacific. I can handle badly authored DVDs on occasion and slightly mistimed subtitles; I can even deal with over-priced collector's series. What I cannot abide by is Viz's 20-year history of bailing on its own products before they ever get a chance to find an audience. Viz released the first 15 episodes of the show in a DVD box set when the show began airing on SyFy in 2009. However, due to poor sales, further releases were canceled. Had this been a one-time thing, perhaps I could forgive, but no company drops their products in mid-stream like Viz. I think they have made a horrific mistake in this case. During the series' run, I wasn't sure if picking up the DVDs would have any merit; I have little time to re-watch anything, and it's the kind of series where how it ends determines whether or not it's worth starting. But now that it's done, I'd like to revisit it to see clues and hints I missed the first time around. Those DVDs just aren't there to buy. Thankfully, the show is streaming legitimately on a few major sites, so you should be able to find it out there. Just don't expect to be able to buy a nice keepsake.
Monster is not the best anime I've seen, but it's one that breaks many anime conventions and does so brilliantly. The show originated in 2004, and to my knowledge there's been nothing even remotely like it on television. While I'm not surprised, I'm saddened. The anime world needs more shows willing to push the boundaries of the medium like Monster does.
Monster -- graphic violence, brief nudity and sexual situations, abuse and brutality towards children, mild profanity -- A