Monster is a true gem and a rare anime masterpiece.
Despite its daunting length, an exceedingly high standard of quality is consistently maintained in all 74 episodes. And because the writer does not get sidetracked with filler episodes or arcs, a single, coherent storyline runs through. This gives the impression of watching a an excellent graphic novel. Though the story itself is impossibly intricate, a web of intrigue and conflicting motives to tantalize the viewer, Monster manages to conclude dramatically, memorably and without the use of such cheap and overused plot devices as deus ex machina.
Urasawa Naoki clearly left nothing to chance or improvisation in the creation of Monster. His meticulously conceived and astoundingly immersive plot is certainly the result of countless hours of historical, geographical and cultural research. Monster is set against the backdrop of a Germany reeling from its internal division by the Berlin Wall, all the while struggling to cope with the conflicting ideals of democracy and authoritarianism within the same country. This dichotomy between the East and West German governments, along with the long-term consequences for the citizens on each side of the Wall are subtly referenced throughout the plot. Realism on this level is something that no author can fake. The actual plot idea behind Monster is one we have all heard before. A doctor is under suspicion for murder and flees the authorities to find the villain and clear his name. But with Monster, it is not so much the originality of the plot, as it is the masterful storytelling which puts Monster in a category of its own.
Urasawa's style is one of sublime efficiency - not a single scene is wasted and every piece of information revealed to the audience is ultimately significant. A single glance, a dark shadow, the sound of a footstep - these are the precise and parsimonious tools Urasawa uses to tell the story of Monster. His narration is immersive and gripping, but never once does it feels heavy-handed. The flow from scene to scene always feels completely natural, and deftfully avoids any appearance that the writer is forcing the plot in order to create drama or suspense.
If anything, it is just the opposite: the main story is advanced through the exposition of tangential subplots. As a result, the hero is constantly hot on the trail of the antagonist, but only ever able to gain information from indirect witnesses, friends of friends, people only remotely related to the search at hand. Consequently, the antagonist's screen time is so rare that each appearance might even be considered a cameo. And yet, Urasawa's villain is easily the best characterised and most memorable in all the anime I have seen to date. I stand in awe of Monster, for this is storytelling at its finest.
I extend my sincere congratulations to Madhouse, the studio which produced Monster, for not letting commercial interest ruin this wonderful work of art and for keeping a strict vigil over the quality of the series during the 18 months it aired. The result speaks for itself: one would find it extremely challenging to find another anime of this length which tells its story in such compelling fashion, and with such style, ingenuity and dignity.
The visual quality in Monster is both superb and unique. Through the creative use of cinematic techniques, Monster is made to feel very much like a movie, because the "camera" viewpoint is often used to focus in on significant moments or details or even facial expressions. In this fashion, the audience's attention is skillfully drawn towards such ominous things as shadows, dark corners and footsteps in order to intensify the atmosphere.
The artwork in Monster carries strong influences from film noir. Even from the first few episodes, the use of darker hues and greyed out tones give the anime a bleak and foreboding feeling. As the story progresses, the anime becomes a showcase for the animator's sublime mastery over the use of shadow and lighting.
Detail levels are quite decent, although exterior scenery is rare, given the dark nature of the story. The few scenic moments I do remember in the anime were well-drawn. I know the following will seem odd for a mystery and suspense thriller, but the food shown in Monster is extremely appetizing; I distinctly recall feeling hungry several times while watching the characters eat. Prior to viewing Monster, I had never craved German food, but I must admit that the anime actually convinced me to seek out a place where I could eat some the things I saw.
Obviously, in a suspense/thriller anime, you would not expect to find highly memorable or catchy tunes. This is the case with Monster, the anime relying more heavily on silence, foreboding sounds, and the occasional eerie music to set the mood. And since sustaining mood is of paramount importance in this genre, the sound selection was appropriate and well-considered. The audio track always complemented the scenes of the anime, and never detracted from the tension of the moment.
Despite being 74 episodes long, Monster had only one opening and two ending themes. From a vocal standpoint, both singers featured in the ending music are quite mediocre. However, the suitability of these two pieces for the overall atmosphere of Monster is ideal. Both pieces are only very lightly orchestrated, with contrasting emphasis on echo and proximity of voice to the microphone, resulting in an altogether unsettling and haunting feeling which is completely appropriate for the series.
It is the voice acting, though, which gives Monster its unforgettable immersiveness. The seiyuu cast succeeds brilliantly in adding to the overall atmosphere. Though the anime involves a wide spectrum of emotion, the seiyuu convincingly convey each emotion to perfection. Sasaki Nozomu in particular deserves special commendation for so vividly bringing to life the role of the main antagonist. It is no easy task to credibly portray the voice of a person who commits brutal murder without a trace of emotion, and yet possesses the gentle charm and seductive charisma to beguile and manipulate countless others.
Urasawa Naoki's indirect storytelling style has a very apparent benefit: it allows him to richly develop the entire cast of characters, including those with secondary roles. I would be hard-pressed to name a single character in Monster with whom I did not feel intimately acquainted and whose motivations I did not understand by the end of the series. Considering that each episode almost certainly introduces at least one new character, it is mind-blowing that Urasawa manages to achieve this level of familiarity among the audience with all of his numerous and colourful characters.
Urasawa pushes the envelope with the characterisation of his main cast and manages to completely blur the lines between fictional character and real person. He recognises that people do not only change as a result of momentous plot events - sometimes, people also gradually change over time. The timeline of Monster spans over forty years, so this slow self-evolution of the characters' motivations, aspirations and values provides a much deeper level of authenticity that I would love to see in other anime.
I also admire the fact that Monster's characters are shown to have a life outside their role within plot. This is a dimension which adds a great deal to the believability of the characters. Often it takes no more than only the subtlest of details, like a family picture in the background, or a quick "in-passing" reference during dialogue, but such are the minutiae which distinguish excellence from mediocrity.
Monster possesses a polish shared by too few other anime. It is truly a finished product, completed and produced with pride. As a viewer, I distinctly felt that every scene was contemplated with care, every detail meticulously reviewed. One would be hard-pressed to find an inconsistency in the story, let alone an unexplained or forgotten plotline. Monster is a lengthy 74-episode anime with no fillers. This alone should speak volumes as to the quality of this anime.
For the lack of a better place to mention this, the ending sequence is well worth the time to watch, in detail, after every episode. The graphical content for the outro is almost never identical, though often the changes from episode to episode are almost imperceptible. Yet, those who have the patience to sort through these small differences are richly rewarded with an additional dose of ingenious foreshadowing and symbolism.
Without a doubt, because of its all-around excellence, and its superb attention to quality and detail, Monster has become the definitive benchmark by which I have judged all other anime. To all lovers of quality anime, if you have yet to see Monster, then you are most assuredly missing out on one of the very best.
I’ve written about this several times now, but for the sake of completeness, allow me to complain once more on the general quality of lengthy series. The simple fact that long series tend to be filler-ridden, asinine and childish wastes of time is not a difficult one to realize. When it comes right down to it, a profitable 50+ episode series needs a big audience and a small budget, and thus most of these shows tend to appeal to the largest demographic (boys) while at the same time keeping the content per episode to a minimum. As evidence, I point towards the cancellation of Twelve Kingdoms, the baffling continuing success of Pokemon, or the stubborn determination of Naruto to remain boring and repetitive despite an excellent initial premise.
Fortunately enough, there are exceptions to every rule, and Monster is one of them. Despite an incredibly large number of episodes, the anime presents a thoroughly intelligent, incredibly well paced, and unquestionably mature storyline. Furthermore, this inexplicably high quality does not only apply to the plotline, but to just about every aspect of the show. As a result, Monster is a breathtaking tour de force of amazing suspense and surprising intelligence. While I certainly hope that a series of this length will one day exceed Monster, the odds of this actually happening are practically nonexistent.
The series begins quietly. At the beginning, Dr. Tenma (the protagonist) faces a fairly standard (albeit poignant) moral dilemma regarding the relative value of human lives. Once he chooses his path, however, he triggers an unavoidable chain of events that eventually plunges him into a remarkably complex and rewarding storyline. A common problem among extremely lengthy series is that they attempt to stretch a premise over more episodes than it can handle, but Monster has no such problem. The anime moves at a pace that one would expect from a 26 episode series, but never slacks off in overall quality.
The basic plot borrows heavily from film noir; a lot of what the genre is known for (dimly lit cityscapes, corrupted and cynical characters, rampant crime, etc.) can likewise be found in Monster. As a result of using these elements, Monster is by nature a very engaging and suspenseful watch; this is the first anime in quite some time for me to truly marathon. However, what makes the show so inherently great are not the similarities to the genre, but the key differences. Whereas the style of film simply believes that most human beings are easily corrupted, Monster focuses on the basic reasons for this decadence of morality. Is evil an inborn trait common to a select few individuals, or do these individuals become depraved by outside stimuli? In particular, the show asks very insightful and intriguing questions on the possible existence of Absolute Evil, and whether any human being truly deserves to die. By asking these questions, Monster becomes not only one of the most electrifying animes that I have seen, but one of the most intelligent as well.
The exceptional plot and characters are wrapped in a presentable, but by no means groundbreaking, technical package. Animation gets points for its relatively unique style in the character designs, but falters in other places. Many of the backgrounds of the show are somewhat ordinary, and oftentimes the mundane, everyday imagery is at odds with the darker mood of the show.
Voice acting is exceptional; Noto Mamiko has now surpassed Inoue Kikuko for my favorite seiyuu. She was outstanding in Elfen Lied and several other series, and she’s equally impressive here as Nina Fortner. The other highlight of the show is Johan’s actor, who pretty much channels the role perfectly, but the rest of the actors all put in more than respectable performances. Music works decently well with the show, but isn’t really listenable by itself.
Monster is also careful to show the better side of humanity, most often through Tenma. Although at first he is portrayed as an unremarkable and somewhat impressionable individual, he soon shapes into a truly honorable and likeable human being. Many times, he acts as a foil to the decidedly gloomy events around him, and single-handedly prevents the show from ever becoming too depressing. Tenma is further complemented by the equally impressive supporting characters, which are excellent without exception. From Eve, the classic femme fatale, to Lunge, the tireless, unrelenting inspector (who in many ways represents Inspector Javier from Hugo’s “Les Miserables”), even the more minor characters are extremely well developed and absolutely fascinating. However, these fantastic characters are overshadowed by the anime’s primary antagonist (whose name I will not mention, in the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free). Of all the villains in anime, this is the best one I’ve seen since I watched Berserk nearly two years ago. Eerily well developed and yet at the same time unflinchingly evil, the character is a true monster that really has to be seen to be believed.
Overall, Monster is a new favorite, and is a series that I would recommend to just about everyone. Think the crap you’re watching now is better than this? Think again.
Allow me to reveal a cold, hard, and very ugly fact: This past year has been nothing but a plethora of the Annoying (Madlax, Samurai Champloo), the Average (Elfen Lied, Midori no Hibi), and the Awful (Gantz, Konomini). As the year wore on, I worried that maybe only Koi Kaze lingered on the side of good. Fortunately, I was wrong. There is one other title, just one, that is not only good, but outstanding. Monster very easily blows away all anime released of late and is truly the best anime of 2004.
One decision (made with the best of intentions) is the catalyst for the events that unfold. Dr. Tenma's decision challenges the age-old idea that institutions exist only for the benefit of "high society." Monster is the first anime I've seen that seriously touches on the issue of bigotry and elitism. There are many ideas illustrated throughout Monster, but none more prominent than the theme of redemption or forgiveness. Is there such a thing as redemption even for the greatest sinners? Many of the characters (the alcoholic ex-detective comes to mind) have been broken-whether physically or emotionally-and seek that one thing that may save them. Dr. Tenma, in particular, undergoes a desperate and poignant journey in order to alleviate guilt for something he has done. Not only is the story fantastic, but its execution must be admired, as well. Although slated at seventy-eight episodes, Monster has, as of yet, a multifaceted story that has remained compelling.
Only Satoshi Kon draws characters this ugly.
Eerie is the perfect term to describe both the opening and ending themes. The OP is an odd, but excellent instrumental peppered with haunting voices in the background. The ED is just as odd (if only for the pictures that accompany it), but I really like the song. I don't know the name of the singer, but I really like the way he sings the lyrics. "We could lose it all, but we'll go down fighting." Heh. The second OP sucks. The background music can be overly dramatic at times, but that doesn't happen very often. The voice acting is solid, with the stand-out being Eva and Johan. Johan never raises his voice, and this fact puts chills down the spine. But most importantly, a guy plays the part.
The story is only outmatched by the characters, most notably, Dr. Tenma, Johan, Eva, and Detective Lunge. On Dr. Tenma's part, he is almost unrecognizable from the beginning of the series (ala Twelve Kingdoms). In the beginning, he's an unremarkable character- submissive and indeterminate. He's the type of person that doesn't care about being used. He's the type of person that will hesitate to make a decision. However, it's not long before Dr. Tenma transforms into a strong-willed human being capable of murder and giving up everything- his position, his credibility, his life- in order to retract his decision made in the past. Eva is a novelty; in fact, I wish there were more female characters like her. Gone is the silly, frivolous cardboard and in its place is a lonely woman willing to do anything for the sake of her wounded pride. The insomniac Detective Lunge is always fun to watch and I wait patiently for a back-story. But as great as the characters are, all of them are bested by the villain.
Likened to Hitler and Jesus Christ, the title character is the best villain to grace the anime scene since Griffith. Exploiting those who have been psychologically damaged, he positions himself as either healer or cold-blooded manipulator. He has very rarely appeared on screen; in fact, until a certain point, he has had only one dominant scene. In Elfen Lied, viewers are often exposed to images of Lucy's depravity, but Monster's approach is subtler and not so easy: his intricacies are not revealed through dialogue spoken by him seasoned with maniacal laughter, explicit acts of cruelty, or murderous rampages, but through other's reactions when speaking his name. I see that others, even ones closest to him, are terrified of him, and this is much more horrifying than had I been constantly exposed to gluttonous brutality. When viewers finally see him in actual action, it's a supplement- it strengthens his character, surely, but it is not wholly necessary. At this point, had his physical appearance been omitted, I would still be scared to death of him, and that is perhaps the most meaningful praise I could give.
Save for a few episodes that probably could have been omitted (at one point, the anime was almost episodic), Monster has been the most engaging anime I've watched in some time. The show is intelligent without resorting to surreal metaphors in the likes of Boogiepop Phantom or Serial Experiments Lain. Gripping, intensifying, and bloody brilliant, Monster is one of the best anime I've seen.
Events begin humbly with Dr Kenzo Tenma's professional dilemmas appearing soap-opera predictable. Within a handful of episodes the show becomes a polished, sophisticated thriller to catch breaths and churn stomachs. And at the end, a flawless finish.
Monster progresses like a serial novel, with each arc not just a gripping tale in its own right, but linking seamlessly into the harrowing journey that Dr Tenma, Nina and many others have to take as a whole. The animation, though far from seminal, is all the better for being timelessly realistic. Such atmosphere, such fantastic use of camera angles and cuts and colour and tone in order to tease out every nuance of believable human drama. The score includes no catchy tunes, no corny little refrains, but a clever mosaic of Hollywood-like orchestral pieces so intense that I had to pause the player many times.
Moreover, when every single minor character from start to finish has a memorable background, that is when you have found a definitive work of characterisation. Monster is 74 episodes long and it's populated with unique individuals who grow and evolve and fear and hurt and hope in exceedingly compelling ways. Some are heroic; many are despicable; but each character has an important function within the overarching narrative as well as living their own story. The crowning glory of Monster's achievements, of course, is Johan Liebert. An ambitiously portrayed and yet frighteningly real villain who represents 'man' in his dehumanised extreme. He's cruel, clever, and frighteningly complex. He's murderous but he's also highly likeable. Thought Light Yagami and Lelouch Lamperouge were profound? Johan reveals them for the preposterous caricatures they are.
The world of anime is unlikely to witness a show this incredible for many years to come. And if you don't believe me, then take it from other site reviewers far more discriminating than I:
'Likened to Hitler and Jesus Christ, the title character is the best villain to grace the anime scene since Griffith.' (Pantha)
'Think the crap you’re watching now is better than this? Think again.' (vivafruit)
Isn’t it funny how most see the tree and miss the forest? Monster is a show quite uncommon to the medium yet has its own faults which eventually disappoint the more experienced viewers as well as the ones who expected TOO much from it.
Monster is one of the most famous psychological thrillers ever made into anime, and for many it is the best as well. It is the story of a surgeon, hunting all over the world a genius mastermind that has the charisma to manipulate peoples’ dark desires to his own liking, turning them to ruthless serial killers if he so wishes it. The hunt is a long one (well, it is a 74 episode show) and every place they pass by, corpses fill the streets.
To be honest, the greatest attraction of the anime is the grim atmosphere, a result of the menacing aura Johan, the main villain, emanates all around him. He practically IS the story as everything moves according to his plan. Not that this ingredient alone was enough for the entire recipe to work. The combination of great production values, the rather realistic depiction of the setting, the constant mystery of what are Johan’s intensions, the huge number of characters, as well as the dementia many show from time to time, all that were very successfully done elements that contributed into making Monster the… monster of anime it is today.
On the other hand, the more experienced eye (that is me) is not so easily tricked with simple magician tricks, and trust me when I say that the show is full of those. Most of these elements work on a mostly superficial level and it is the simple fact that THERE HASN’T BEEN ANYTHING REMOTELY LIKE IT BEFORE OR AFTER that mostly made Monster so successful. Before I analyze further what I mean, I will admit that it is indeed a one of a kind anime and thus there is no other directly comparable series to it in anime form (there are some in manga though). So whatever I say here on does not place Monster bellow some other similar anime (a thing I usually end up doing since I love comparisons) as Monster is alone in its specific category. Although some would rush to place Death Note or Ergo Proxy in the same package, the truth is those anime are heavy on magic or sci-fi, whereas Monster is to the most part pure psychological thriller (although as I will describe later, Johan’s powers are supernatural and thus the show does have a twist of low fantasy as well).
And now I will start my rather overcritical analysis of the show, starting with the production values. They are indeed very good.
- The characters are drawn rather realistic and the humor is almost absent, a thing that allows the thriller to work better without being ridiculed by puns and slapstick (as it happens in most other anime).
- The animators did their research in an attempt to depict the setting of the series as realistically as possible. Many areas are almost identical to their corresponding ones in Germany of our reality, and they are drawn with a high amount of color palette and details to feel more real as well. And as expected, most signs and messages are indeed written in German or other corresponding language, instead of just conveniently being Japanese or English or whatever.
- The use of light and form is another thing that was done great, as the animators managed to use darkness effectively to boost the scary scenes, as well as exploiting the concept of child innocence as means to make the gore aspect even more vivid. Where most shows depict villains as ugly and stupid, Johan and many of the ones he affects look and act externally as normal and kind people. Yet deep inside they hide a really violent and menacing nature, so the viewer is unable to just know what to expect of them just by looking at their faces. Combining this with shading their faces when the truth comes up and you have yourself a splendid work. Something similar is done with the fairy tale in the story, which has some cute drawings that hide a very gory story.
- Something similar can be said about the music as well. There are no annoying voices in the entire show, and most speak in a mostly sophisticated / educated / non-lame-shonen way. It really helps to feel like these guys are smart enough for you to care about them. They are also NOT defined immediately by the tone of their voice, so just because someone sounds gentle does not mean he really is as such in character, and just because another is grumpy does not mean he is a villain.
- The music score also consists of some really exceptional pieces that really make you feel you are watching something scary. No jpop or death metal, cheap means to yell at the viewer what to expect. They are slow and almost sad, hinting that something is amiss. Just because they “hint” is enough to deem them exceptional; one not paying attention would think they are just low toned boring music pieces.
- If there is a slight glitch that I noticed is the culture differences between Japanese and German. I have heard native Germans complaining about how the characters don’t sound right when speaking in the main language of the series or don’t have a German body language. That is kinda minor but it is a way to know it is NOT done by Germans.
Moving to the story. Although the core concept is very interesting, I found the execution and the duration of the story to have their faults.
- The concept is great, as it delves into the dark region of the mind and shows how everybody has a monster hiding inside him, ready to come out if the proper conditions are met. In fact, the entire mystery is about people trying to exploit that aspect as means to manipulate the will of others for their personal agenda. Thus many social experiments in the series are in fact inhuman acts of bending free will and trashing the defenses of the mind in order to create charismatic leaders which control nations with their charisma alone. It is far more interesting than in most series where characters behave as if they were born good or evil; over here it can go either way based on how you treat them or how you manipulate their way of thinking. It also has nothing to do with how strong or fast you are; it is the guy with the strongest mind defenses and offences that wins and everything is performed usually cryptic or initially out of screen so you don’t have a clear picture.
- Pacing on the other hand felt unnecessarily slow and the duration was far longer than it should be in my opinion. The entire story could be told easily in 50 episodes. And if we were to take out all the minor secondary events that felt like making pointless circles, to even 26 episodes. This can work both ways of course; many claim that the slow pace and the multiple side stories allowed for better immersion to the setting and the characters. Some can grow impatient with this and some may be eating their nails out of frustration of what will follow (which counts as a plus). Since I am a rather cynical person, I belong to the former category and thus many parts felt boring or unnecessary and I would gladly prefer a shorter version. Most of the sidetracking was nothing but slight variations of the core theme and only ended up making Johan to look like some sort of Hudini, appearing, doing his stuff and disappearing like he is the Invisible Man.
- The ending is quite disappointing. After the huge build up for so many dozens of episodes, THAT happens and you are left facepelming with how rushed and unexciting it was. The chances of having very bad last impressions are very high as the finale is plain unworthy of the hype you may have created in your mind.
And now the cast.
- To be honest, this is a one man show. You don’t have Johan, you don’t have Monster. Everything happens because he feels like letting them happen as such and for that reason despite the huge number of characters, they are all passive, minor and forgettable before him.
- Although most are affecting minor sides of the overall story, especially those who know Johan and provide insight to his character, overall they are all peons in his hands. That felt as if the characters have no control over their actions and it is the plot that drives them and not the other way around. Although the series attempts to point out how most people are indeed peons for the charismatic leaders, and that since Johan is a character himself, the entire plot is logical and convincing. Sure, externally that works indeed. They are still far too minor to the whole plot, a thing that feels bad in its own way.
- Plus, we are never EXACTLY shown how Johan was brainwashing his victims into trusting him and becoming serial killers or getting murdered from his poison candies all the time. All that happen out of screen and we are only hinted HOW he did it. Well, although that externally makes him far more cool and mysterious, in practice it is as if he is using MAGIC to do it if we are not SHOWN how exactly it is done. Like, what dialogue did he exchange with them and how he tapped into the things they were afraid or mad at. That is where the low fantasy of the show lies, as I mentioned earlier and probably the part where most fail to realize how Monster is NOT a completely realistic anime. In fact, throughout the series Johan keeps doing anything he likes and always walks away calmly, as if everybody couldn’t see him at all or are too afraid to shoot him. To be honest, it grows tiresome after the tenth time, a thing that wouldn’t feel as such if all those sidetracks weren’t present.
- As a stand alone character, Johan is indeed cool and interesting. Unlike most arch-villains who just want to rule the world or become Gods, his true intentions are nothing close to that. Plus, we are not told what they are until the story is close to its finale. Also, he never brainlessly explains his plans with a boasting monologue, as most arch-villains do; that is left to be discovered bit by bit through investigation of his past and by talking to various people who were affected by him. Also, he actually DOES have a masterplan, unlike some other arch-villains who only say they have but in reality not even the scriptwriter has a clue to what they want (such as Aizen and his Just as Planned BS). Too bad he is the only great one in the whole series.
I won’t deny Monster a full score in value. It is historically speaking a very important title, very famous to boot, part of the top 5 of thousands of people, and down to it uncommon and memorable even if you didn’t like it much.
Yet on the enjoyment factor, I was personally not thrilled with the… thriller. It lasted way too much and felt to the most part like they were going on circles. I also didn’t like how there was only ONE great character amongst a hundred others and to the most part only because we were not shown how or why he does his thing. Plus the finale is very disappointing.
Monster is an interesting show but not exactly the most entertaining one. If you want more, the same mangaka also made “20th Century Boys”. There is also another good psychological thriller manga named Dragon Head.