If you've heard of Monster, then odds are you've probably heard of the incredible hype surrounding it. For a while, Monster has been the absolute critic's darling of anime, being the poster-boy for lofty intellectual types. Because of this, it can be very easy to imagine Monster as being overhyped.
But Monster lives up to every word of the praise it gets.
The story of Monster begins fairly simply. A skilled Neurosurgeon named Kenzo Tenma is due to perform an operation on a patient, but is called away to operate on a popular singer instead. The singer's life is saved, but his original patient dies. Dr. Tenma is, soon after, called away from another operation due to the mayor needing his services, but this time, he declines, and instead operates on the patient he was originally supposed to save. The operation is a success, but this time, the mayor instead dies. For his insolence, Tenma is to be demoted and replaced... but at the last second, everyone standing in his way is mysteriously killed.
Years later, Tenma's career is back on track, and he is enjoying a successful life doing what he does best. But one day, a string of bizarre serial murders winds up leading to one of Tenma's patients. Amidst the investigation surrounding him, the patient disappears... Tenma follows, only to see his patient murdered before his eyes, by the orchestrator of the serial killings... Johan Liebert, the boy whose life he chose to save those years ago.
What follows is 70+ episodes of Tenma's frantic search to find the boy he saved, and fix his mistake. Along the way, we meet some of the most unique and interesting, yet believably human characters in the history of anime, matched with amazing, compelling subplots, with all of these both answering mysteries regarding, and yet at the same time, furthering the question: Who is Johan Liebert, and what is he trying to do?
While the 70 episode runtime can be daunting, Monster is a worthy investment of time. While it is driven by compelling mysteries that make you want to watch more, Monster is just as much about enjoying the journey as it is reaching the destination. To hold the viewer's attention for 74 episodes is a feat in of itself, but Monster goes beyond that... it's a show that, once you start watching, you'll never want to stop. Monster is in the master class of suspense. It keeps a constant stream of new twists and developments that, while plentiful, never feel contrived. The characters are both strong and numerous, but while there are countless cast members, unlike many shows where there are large amounts of characters that are completely useless and contribute nothing to the plot, every character in Monster brings something to the mix. Not only that, but they are rarely left open-ended, as Urasawa makes sure to bring back characters from previous arcs, using each one to their fullest extent.
The brilliance of Monster also extends past the plot to the production. While Naoki Urasawa's art style is better suited to pen and paper than it is to animation, it doesn't take long to get used to, and the detail is quite noticeable. The genius in Urasawa's distinctive style is in the way he draws faces. The cartoony, yet detailed features have a strange level of warmth to them, but they can also be used to create truly intimidating expressions, ranging from death glares to blank, glassy-eyed gazes. The directing is also top-notch, cutting no corners to create a perfect adaptation to the manga.
Also of note is the soundtrack. Every song on it is a fantastic piece of music, beautifully married to the scene it accompanies. Many pieces are subtle, yet brilliant... The Seeds of Time, for example, rather than going for full-on, orchestral bombastics, eases in with quiet, yet tension-ridden power that gradually rises, making for several of the most stunning scenes in the entire series. The opening and ending themes are also very strong... the opening theme, Grain, would have to be, as it is the opening for the entire course of the 74 episode series. The ending themes, For The Love of Life and Make It Home, are strange, ethereal, haunting songs, and match the "Monster With No Name" theme of the series that is used in the ending credits perfectly.
As for the voice acting, both languages have a very strong cast. In terms of acting quality, the Japanese is the better of the two, if not by a wide margin, featuring several great performances, the highlight of which is Nozomu Sasaki's dead-on, creepy take on Johan. However, while the acting is slightly inferior in the dub, the casting is considerably better. Richard Epcar is perfect for the role of Detective Lunge, and Patrick Seitz' deep tones and off-kilter performance are a great match for the eerily poker-faced Wolfgang Grimmer. The only actor who seems off in the dub is Keith Silverstein's work as Johan, which feels rather unnatural, and overshadowed by his superior Japanese counterpart. Overall, I would recommend the dub, but it's hard to go wrong with either language.
Now, as much as I hate to say it, Monster isn't quite perfect. It's probably as close as you're likely to find, but it does have one problem. Whilst not so much a fault as a double-edged sword, Urasawa's storytelling technique of switching off to another location whenever the plot starts to get tired can be somewhat problematic. Don't get me wrong... as a storytelling technique, it's a very good one. It helps to keep the viewer's interest and stop the plot from getting stale, and also features prominently in Urasawa's later works, 20th Century Boys and Pluto. The problem is that on some occasions, it gets overused. While Monster is nowhere near as big an offender for this as 20th Century Boys is, it goes off on new plot threads that, while enjoyable, don't really lend anything to the plot. While they often develop into full-fledged and brilliant story arcs, they sometimes end up going nowhere, and in a series where the viewer is dying to find out more, this can be somewhat distracting.
However, any complaints against this series are completely and utterly silenced by the ending. The final six episodes are probably the best in the entire series. The remaining cast members are all given a triumphant finale, as the tension reaches its absolute peak, and it is thoroughly clear that this is what the entire series was leading to. With the exception of one small Deus ex Machina that I shall not name due to spoilers, everything about it is a flawlessly executed conclusion.
Monster probably isn't something that beginners to anime would enjoy. If you enjoy the medium for the abundant exaggeration, then this probably isn't up your alley. This is more of a classic, cat and mouse detective series than anything you regularly see in anime, and if that sounds like your sort of thing then Monster is an absolute must-watch.
Final Words: Exemplary in every single aspect, from the story, to the characters, to the writing, to the directing.
English Dub: 9/10
For Fans Of: Pluto, Gankutsuou.