Review: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster (2004-2005)

When I find a show as good as Monster, I sometimes wonder if I’m dreaming.  Is it really possible that a show this good hasn’t already been completely rejiggered and screwed up by some big American studio?  Well, one look at Wikipedia shows me that I’m not far off base as New Line has optioned the story for a feature and hired A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson to adapt it.  I’m very glad I got to see the series in its original form first.

The premise is fairly simple, at first anyway.  Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a brilliant Japanese neurosurgeon working in a hospital in Germany.  He has it all-the skills, the looks, and the attention of the boss’s daughter to whom he is engaged.  Everything is going well until that pesky boss starts pressuring him to prioritize certain patients over others.  One night, young twins, a boy and a girl, are rushed into the emergency room after their foster parents are killed.  The boy, Johan, has a bullet in his brain.  Tenma is preparing to perform surgery to remove it but he’s stopped by the boss.  It seems that the mayor of their town had a heart attack and he’s a big political supporter of funding for the hospital.  Tenma is ordered to attend to the mayor and leave the child to other, less capable surgeons.  Tenma refuses and saves the child, but the mayor dies and the good doctor’s fate is sealed.  He slowly begins to lose everything he’d earned and the final nail in the coffin is the fact that the boy he saved may just be some kind of heinous monster who was shot in the head by his own sister to prevent him from further evil deeds.

It may seem that I’ve given you spoilers, but I haven’t.  All of the above is divulged in the first two episodes of this 74 episode series.  Tenma goes on the run after being falsely accused of several grisly murders and he decides that he must correct his error and kill the boy before he can hurt more people.  But there’s much more to this series as we meet many of the people in Tenma’s path and others in Johan’s.  Johan’s twin sister, Anna (AKA Nina) also becomes a major part of the show as does the BKA investigator assigned to Tenma’s case.

The story has many twists and turns but it’s told with an elegance that you rarely see in television, whether it be in live action or animated fare.  In fact, I’d say this is the most well-written series I’ve ever seen.  Every character (and there are many) is fully fleshed out and has a genuine payoff, even if they’re only around for one or two episodes.  Every aside takes us down a necessary path that winds closer to the confrontation between Tenma and Johan.  Every image resonates with important information that furthers the emotional content of the story.  Director Masayuki Kojima has worked wonders here within the confines of television anime.

As I watched more and more of this series, I began to wonder how it could work so well.  Even the best animation renders human faces with a certain crudeness.  Subtlety is rarely the name of the game in animated works, but this show is filled with subtle moments.  I’ve concluded that, with enough visual cues, I can fill in the missing details that flesh out the hand drawn people and places, in much the same way that I populate an entire convenience store in a Stephen King novel with just s few hints from the author.  In that way, the details are more my own than they are the series creators’ and probably end up being more realistic.

Based on the manga of the same name and created by Naoki Urasawa, the series looks and feels like a Studio Ghibli production, and with good reason.  The characters were all designed by Ghibli stalwart Kitaro Kosaka.  But the resemblance to Miyazaki goes beyond the characters.  The backgrounds are mostly painted in light colors and while the animation certainly isn’t of feature quality, it is beautiful rendered by talented artists who clearly cared about the presentation of this story.  Yes, corners are cut, as in all animated series, but it doesn’t take long to forget you’re watching animation.  The characters are so realistically portrayed that I found myself sympathizing with them more and examining the tricks of the animators less as the series progressed.

I’m sad to hear that New Line is planning to make this sprawling tale into a Hollywood feature.  If my calculations are correct, the show had about 25 hours of content when you take away each episode’s intro and end credits.  A two hour feature just isn’t going to cut it.  I’d much rather see this turned into an HBO or Showtime series that lasts for several seasons.  But then again, the series as it stands now is nearly perfect.  Why develop an English language version at all?

One issue is the availability of the show.  It’s currently on Netflix streaming, but only the first fifteen episodes have been published on DVD in the US, with no others planned due to poor sales.  Catch it on Netflix while you can, and in the original Japanese!  Very highly recommended.

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