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.
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.
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.
Monster. Is a story that brings an assorted array of emotions, wonderful twist and turns, An ever eerie thriller that never slows down until the final episode credits roll.A constant flow of new characters arrive often.Never swaying in character depth,leaving the viewer with a strong attachment to the characters through out the entire series.
Animation is clean and crisp. Only the finest from the anime house, no mansion MADHOUSE.(Chobits,Hellsing,Trigun, etc.) Sound is very welcoming and responsive for an amazing blend of traditional German Classical music. An intense opening followed with a spooky end.
We are born into this world with a preconceived notion of choices. One leading into another. What if you had to make the biggest decision of your entire life, only to make the worst mistake of ones life.
In this case. Don't make the mistake of passing this anime up. For anyone. Otaku to novice welcome.
As usual, there may be some minor spoilers below, but I won't spoil anything substantial.
Monster is the first anime that I have encountered (I'm still a little new to the genre) with the gritty realism to match a standard television series - which is probably why there are currently rumblings about it being turned into a live-action HBO series. Most anime have a strong fantasy/sci-fi/supernatural element, but Monster is very much set in the real world, following real world parameters, and surrounded by the darkness and consequences of real world actions.
STORY - 9.5/10
Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a brilliant surgeon who is faced with a difficult decision early in the series - follow his boss' orders, or perform a surgery that only he can perform to save the life of a young boy. He chooses the latter, and sets in motion a string of events that would have been impossible for him to foresee. And yet he spends the remainder of the series wracked with guilt over that decision, and doing everything within his power to track down the boy - who is now a young man - and stop the reign of terror that the boy has unleashed.
Pretty much the entire story revolves around the boy, Johan. Johan is the titular monster, and the story slowly peels back the layers revealing, little by little, just how Johan became the monster that he is. I got a very distinct Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince vibe from the way that the other characters, predonimnantly Tenma, learn of Johan's past - just as Harry slowly learns of Voldemort's history. The idea that understanding how someone came to be who they are might be the only way to stop them is an interesting one, and the show spends a lot of time trying to figure out just who Johan and his twin sister, Nina, are.
More interesting, perhaps, is how Monster chooses to tell its story. Short arcs will unravel, and just when we think that we're about to find out something pivotal, the plot will back off and introduce completely new characters and begin to tell their stories - eventually leading to the place we thought that we were initially going, just from a different angle. While this can be frustrating initially, once you learn to trust that the writer knows what he's doing, it's actually an engrossing way to let the tale unfold. I found that it added layers of complexity to the plot that would be simply unachievable otherwise. Some might complain that it adds too many side plots and unimportant minor characters, but I would argue that those people are missing the point of the story altogether.
There is a constant gloominess surrounding the plot, which can be attributed to Johan's almost god-like powers to control everything that is going on around him. The story also touches on a lot of uncomfortable and dark ideas (mostly involving the treatment of children). This causes much of the story to be grim and depressing, but Monster does an excellent job, usually through Tenma or Nina or Dieter, of demonstrating glimmers of light and hope amid the darkness. And, without giving too much away, the story does conclude on a happier note.
ANIMATION - 8/10
Monster isn't as visually impressive as a lot of more recent anime. It lacks the dazzle and flash of series with lots of action, and the grittiness of the animation almost makes it feel like it's an entirely different genre of series altogether. But it works within the context of the world that the show is trying to create.
My main pet peeve is that the animation of actions is often clunky (people running, in particular, just looks really off in this series). But on the whole, the look of the show definitely adds to the ominous vibe that pervades every frame - the hopelessness that anything can be done to stop Johan.
SOUND - 8/10
As usual, I watched the English dub of Monster. I found some of the voice acting to be outstanding, while a number of the voices seemed somewhat jarring - they just didn't seem like they would belong to the character on the screen. But the main characters were all well done - Johan, in particular, has a haunting, yet soothing, quality to his voice that is really unnerving.
The series' score is also strong, and I often found myself entranced by the music during important scenes.
CHARACTERS - 10/10
Like any great series, the true strength of Monster is its characters. Dr. Tenma is an appropriately broken man through much of the story, unsure of his place in the world after the decision that he made. Even the look of his character shows the weight that he carries around on his shoulders. But despite all of his doubt and guilt, he always tries to do the right thing - the very quality that caused him to save Johan in the first place. Tenma is a simple character in that regard - you always know that he will do the right thing. But there is still a complexity to him that is intriguing, and he is an easily sympathetic character that all viewers will identify with and cheer for.
Johan, of course, is far more intriguing, as most well-constructed villians will be. Johan is shown as the embodiment of evil, the cause of countless deaths across Germany, and even stretching into Czechoslovakia. But the truly terrifying aspect to Johan is that he's rarely the one who pulls the trigger - he has the ability to compel others to do his bidding. He is chaismatic, and if we weren't privy to the fact that he is who he is, he might come off as a very likable character. In fact, as we unravel the history of Johan and Nina's past, we might find ourselves feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Johan. Nina (an overly good character, despite her own troubled childhood) serves as an example of what kind of person Johan might easily have become, had certain things never happened to him as a child.
There are a lot of secondary characters in Monster. Some of them are important, and others less so. But almost every one of them is given personality and nuance, and there are very few series (anime or otherwise) that achieve as much with as many characters as Monster does. Many of the key characters show a tremendous amount of development over the 74 episode span of the series.
The series tries to make the emphatic point that every person has a monster inside of them, but that each individual's choices determine whether they are good or evil. The constrast of two characters like Grimmer and Roberto shows just how easily a few choices can lead people with very similar backgrounds down entirely different paths. Eva, Tenma's ex-fiance who can't seem to come to grips with the fact that she still loves him and spends a decade trying to replace him, is another excellent example of a complex character who shows excellent growth over the length of the series.
All in all, I would put the character work in Monster right up alongside a series like The Wire, I was that impressed with it. I haven't seen anything quite so involving in an anime yet.
OVERALL - 9.9/10
I have a difficult time giving out perfect scores, but Monster is as close to deserving of one as I've seen in an anime series yet.
The story is incredibly well-crafted, and the unique way that it unfolds adds so much complexity to the world that Monster builds. The characters are all well done - even the obvious heroes have flaws, and the obvious villians garner sympathy (except maybe Roberto). And there are plenty of characters who are more ambiguous. And the series touches on plenty of weighty themes and ideas (more than I could ever get into in a review - you could easily write an academic paper on this series).
I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys a more serious and deep story.