Monster Anime: A masterpiece and the psychological thriller par excellence

Monster Anime

At times, the term 'masterpiece' seems to be tossed around casually, perhaps diluting its significance. However, exploring its etymology reveals its roots in the Latin 'magnum opus,' translating to 'great work.' In this light, I apply the term to contemplate Monster, a creation by the brilliant Naoki Urasawa.

In my view, Monster stands as Urasawa's magnum opus. It unfolds as a flawless thriller, consistently holding us on the edge while delving into the intricacies of human nature—exploring moral fragility, duality, inconsistency, and incoherence. A timeless masterpiece that we warmly reminisce about, marking 15 years since its animated debut.

Naoki Urasawa, an extraordinary mangaka, has gifted us with remarkable works like Yawara!, Master Keaton, Billy Bat, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys, among others. While some may favor one of these titles over Monster, what Urasawa accomplished with this 2004 anime (originating as a manga in 1994) is the seamless integration of numerous elements into a robust, cohesive narrative. It captivates us with the profound exploration of themes, particularly delving into the intricacies of evil. Do demons truly exist? Are monsters born or made? What, indeed, defines a monster?


When Evil Is Unleashed

The central plot of Monster unfolds with clarity and simplicity. In 1986, Kenzo Tenma, a brilliant Japanese neurosurgeon working in Germany, appears to have achieved the epitome of life's desires. Engaged to the daughter of the hospital's director, poised to amass wealth akin to his future father-in-law, Tenma envisions a future conducive to his research. His comfortable existence seems destined for triumph.

However, the promise of a bright future evaporates when Tenma makes the morally right choice. Faced with the immediate need to save a child with a gunshot wound to the head, he prioritizes the life of the young patient over the mayor, who suffered a cerebral aneurysm. This pivotal political 'error' costs Tenma dearly, leading to the loss of his secure future, his beautiful yet avaricious girlfriend, Eva, and a moment of vulnerability where he confides in the very child he rescued. Expressing his darkest desires, imprisoned by negativity, Tenma wishes ill upon the hospital director, unaware that his prayers reach the ears of the devil, who answers in kind.

This 'gift' is bestowed by the child he saved, Johan, revealed to be a serial killer. The death of the hospital director provides Tenma the chance to reclaim his lost prominence and rekindle his path to success.

Nine years later, Tenma discovers that his intoxicated and illusory thoughts secured his position, unwittingly entering into a pact with the devil. His decision to save a child, a righteous and pure act as a doctor, emerges as one of the gravest mistakes of his life, as he now stands accused of heinous crimes.

The premise is straightforward: Tenma seeks Johan, now around 20 years old and seemingly holding influential positions in post-Cold War Germany. Realizing he saved a serial killer, a 'monster' with a hidden agenda, Tenma embarks on a quest to unravel Johan's purpose. Throughout this odyssey, he confronts a sinister web of deception that forces him to question even his own humanity.

Reunified Germany and the Echoes of a Haunted Past

In various interviews, Urasawa has acknowledged the profound influence of European literature on his work, singling out German authors like Hölderlin, Heine, Goethe, and Rilke as among his favorites. This affinity might explain why he chose Germany as the optimal backdrop for crafting this narrative.

Within the context of this once-divided nation, Urasawa identified a rich tapestry to explore themes of humanity and malevolence. The commencement of the tale against the backdrop of the standing Berlin Wall and its progression in a post-unification Germany signifies an exploration of wounds still tender and healing.

It's crucial to recall that countries within the socialist bloc during the Cold War faced accusations of human rights violations (though the other side was not necessarily exempt). With the collapse of the Wall, a deluge of horrors and atrocities came to light—nightmares from entrenched institutions refusing to fade, persisting even in the dawn of a new era.

Urasawa's brilliance shines through as he seamlessly integrates historical evolution into the world of Monster during those tumultuous years. As Tenma embarks on his quest through Germany in pursuit of Johan, revelations unfold about the monster's genesis. One key element is Kinderheim 511, an orphanage in East Germany that harbored the children of criminals (including political dissidents in East Germany). Here, state officials conducted enigmatic experiments.

Drawing inspiration from the Lebensborn concept, a Nazi program that abducted hundreds of thousands of children from present-day Russia, Serbia, the Czech Republic, and Poland to mold them into 'true Aryans,' Urasawa introduces a chilling layer to the narrative.

While the specifics of these experiments remain shrouded in the anime (and the manga), it is evident that Johan, whether a product of the experiments or possessing an innate darkness, emerged as the orphanage's ominous 'success.' He is believed to have orchestrated a massacre within its walls, showcasing his gift for manipulating from the shadows and rarely soiling his own hands—an elusive quality that defines him.

Urasawa masterfully interlaces this historical context into the narrative. Johan infiltrates the inner circles of influential figures, inspiring political extremists to action. Far-right Germans, interpreting Johan's will, engage in extreme acts, such as attempting to burn the Turkish section of the city. However, this is not the central focus of the series. Initially portrayed as the titular monster, Urasawa skillfully hints that Johan, despite his extraordinary abilities, may not stand alone in monstrosity.

While political elements may seem to play a secondary role in Monster's storyline, the mangaka broadens his canvas by selecting the now-defunct Czechoslovakia—a nation on the brink of dissolution upon leaving the socialist bloc. Amidst a politically tense atmosphere, where the government grapples with shedding its old ways to salvage what remains, Johan stands as a central figure.

The contextual significance underscores a fundamental question posed by Urasawa: Does the environment shape the creation of a monster, or does the potential for monstrosity exist universally, irrespective of circumstances? Ultimately, Johan's upbringing in an East German orphanage is not pivotal—it could have unfolded anywhere. And therein lies the true terror.

Determination... or Obsession?

Determination and obsession often tread a fine line, their distinctions elusive. These twin forces propel us into action, yet the boundary between them remains delicate.

In Monster, what propels most characters is an intense determination that frequently verges, and sometimes fully descends, into obsession. Their anger or reluctance to acknowledge the truth often blinds them, clouding judgment and pushing some to a point of no return. Others find themselves navigating through a shadowy darkness that dims the prospects of redemption. This dynamic impacts nearly all major characters, encapsulating the perpetual moral struggles each confronts.

Consider Detective Lunge, tasked with solving the murders. His purported determination to prove Tenma's guilt transforms into obsession, leading to the neglect of his family to the point of abandonment, seemingly indifferent.

Then there's Tenma himself, determined to locate Johan, traversing Germany despite being a law-wanted criminal. His commitment doesn't waver when assisting those who perceive the innocent, kind, and noble man behind the criminal label. A man condemned by the devil due to his inherent nobility.

Nevertheless, this noble and innocent man persists in pursuing Johan beyond the aim of clearing his name from the murders. His goal is to expose Johan's actions—an ostensibly illogical act stemming solely from obsession. This fixation intends to terminate the life he had restored, contradicting his true identity as a doctor and transforming him into the accused killer.

Monster, by Urasawa, intricately plays with the dualistic notion of good and evil. Is everything merely black and white? Do human motivations inherently stem from opposing forces? Does a middle ground exist? Can we truly discern goodness from evil? Within the characters' obsessive determination, Monster suggests that simplicity is a rare luxury, and shades of gray persist.

Suspense and Tension

All the elements mentioned above contribute to making Monster, across its 74 episodes, an anime brimming with emotional tension, mystery, and ambiguity. By shedding the story of moral dualism, Urasawa guides us into a realm of indeterminacy, doubt, and inevitable questions. What propels Johan? Is Johan Liebert a demon? Will Tenma forsake his morality to traverse the point of no return? Is the doctor's pursuit justifiable? Is Nina (or Ana) innocent, or does she also carry an inner monster?

With each new character, no matter how minor their role, every fresh setting, and each novel revelation, more questions surface. Every resolved mystery swings open the door to another. Each stride our characters take provokes fresh inquiries.

The pacing of the anime ensures that tension never dwindles. Even in the most tranquil moments, the presence—or omnipresence—of Johan is palpable. Because Johan transcends being just a character; he embodies everything that unsettles, disturbs, and horrifies us. He is the monster that instigates doubt about our own humanity.


In that regard, Monster is unflinching. It doesn't shy away from portraying the stark reality of our world. It's evident in Dieter's battered body and the bloodied face in the clutches of an abuser. In the exploitation of a small Turkish community where hate crimes fester. Monster does not look away when revealing how easily life can be discarded. It's an inescapable fact, even if we attempt to avert our gaze.

This level of horror, of violence, often lies in the hands of thugs and criminals. Their deaths occur frequently and accumulate along Johan's path, trailed by Tenma. While these deaths might not match the significance or gruesomeness of innocent lives lost, they should. Sometimes, these deaths are framed in a manner where nothing occurs without consequence. On other occasions, we might inadvertently encourage their elimination—a stark realization upon reflection.

But, in the end, there's a filthiness in Monster that goes beyond deplorable. Dilapidated alleyways, glimpses of child abuse and murder. It exploits this filthiness to amplify its impact. Scenes bathed in rain, dark screens, characters' screams, blood, and gloomy settings—all carefully used but not always subtle. The focus remains on how terrified the characters are when confronting these acts, making the filth intentional, challenging to cleanse, and utterly terrifying.

The Nameless Monster

Monster, derived from the Latin monstrum, itself originating from the verb moneo, meaning to remember, warn, instruct, or prevent, suggests something strange or singular, deviating from the natural order and signaling the gods of evil. In essence, the monster is associated with malevolence, something contradicting moral values or whose existence instills terror or repugnance.

Because, for Urasawa, the monster isn't necessarily physically repulsive or unattractive. It's not a Frankenstein. It's not a chimera. It's not a being challenging the gods. No, Johan is beautiful. Intelligent. Seductive. Charismatic. Almost perfect.

Thus, he employs an extraordinary device to elucidate what it means to be a monster: Obluda or The Nameless Monster. A children's tale that clarifies everything and, ultimately, bolsters the arguments presented by the author.

The Nameless Monster forms the bedrock of Monster. It's a narrative that can be applied to almost all characters. Monster carries profound symbolism concerning the repercussions of losing, gaining, and altering identities, intertwined with our fundamental needs for family and our human pursuit of validating expressive interactions. Our humanity exposes the notion that malleable humans exist, and there's deceptive freedom in being nameless (moral bindings), which, in reality, is isolating.

In a story already grappling with the loss of oneself leading to monsters created in people, Urasawa uses somewhat disturbing drawings to present the traditional representation of the monster, explaining that real-life monsters are simply human beings.

It's at this point that we recognize the twisted aspect of Johan—he could be anyone. Regardless of nationality, origin, or context, by internalizing and interpreting his circumstances, he realized he could exploit the unfortunate and corrupt nature of humans. He manages to be sympathetic and exposes that the only equality among humans is possible only in death. He is proof that humans can be anything, and perhaps what Monster truly teaches us is that we all have the propensity to become demons, monsters.

There's much more to explore in Monster. This is just a glimpse of its rich content. Its characters are continually tested by their circumstances and life choices, much like all of us in our daily lives. And, upon finishing it, one can't help but think that it only takes one wrong decision for the monster to awaken and devour everything. Chilling.

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