Monster: A sort of review

Monster was one of those high rated shows I’d put off because of its length. But after 17 days, I’ve finally finished all 74 episodes. It’s a seminal accomplishment for me, being the longest anime series I’ve ever watched (not counting the 2 seasons of Hayate no Gotoku and the 10,000+ episodes of Endless Eight).

From this point on spoilers will abound.

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Monster is a curious beast. It’s very atmospheric, nuanced and proceeds at a very deliberate pace. It’s not like Death Note where every episode might get your pulse racing. In fact, I could count the "oh shit!" or "yes!" moments on two or three fingers. The memories that pop out being, Tenma saving Reichwine from Roberto, and Runge reversing the chokehold to stick a gun in Roberto’s mouth. You could call Monster the Aria of psychological/mystery/thrillers. Because it’s slow and there are typical flashes of memories and hints that repeat throughout, each step of the mystery was pretty easy to figure out. It’s as if the show wants you to figure it out. But beyond each revelation is a new revelation waiting in the wings, so it never leaves you wanting for more mystery.

It also goes to tremendous lengths fleshing out its characters. Even minor background guys that you typically wouldn’t think twice of, receive a surprising amount of depth. Multiple episodes will be spent shining the spotlight on supporting characters like Reichwein, Gillen or Suk, and you won’t see or hear a peep from Tenma. It’s a brave strategy, but generally it’s for the best, because you develop a real bond for most of the characters.

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But strangely, for a show that does such a good job detailing its characters, there’s really no one character that you can really, really get attached to. A lot of this is because most of the characters lack that flair of charisma that a Yagami Light, a Lelouch, or a Haruhi have. Instead you get multidimensional characters you might endear one moment, and want to put a fist through their face the next moment. It’s a rare character who’s completely likeable. On the flip side, it’s a rare character who’s completely dislikeable. Or in effect, these are very much "normal" people.

  • Tenma is unyielding good. But he doesn’t try in the slightest to be likeable, and his hesitancy to pull the trigger when necessary is frustrating and ultimately leads to massive destruction
  • Eva is pretty much, an all around crappy human being, but you waver in between understanding her, pitying her and hating her
  • Anna is likeable and is perhaps the most empathetic character. But her increasing mental erraticness as they get closer to tracking down Johann almost renders her useless in the final 1/3 of the season
  • Runge is creepy, not a great human being, but his relentless devotion to his work is admirable, though his stubbornness is equally frustrating
  • Grimmer is the closest you get to being completely likeable, but behind his smiling face is an abused victim with no true emotions
  • Roberto is the closest you get to being completely dislikeable. The reveal of him being Grimmer’s old friend didn’t endear him to me in the slightest. By far the most slimiest character of the show
  • And Johann is a ghost. An urban myth. The embodiment of the monster with a name, but no one to know it.

Johann is the closest you get to a character who might be larger than life, but his charisma is told through stories and through the deeds of others. As viewers, we get little to no firsthand experience of his supernatural charisma abilities. So in this sense, it’s just as well that the show often takes the spotlight off Tenma, because characters like Runge, Grimmer and Anna are actually more interesting characters. And characters that you might be more likely to glom onto.

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Of all the characters, perhaps its Tenma who’s the most frustrating. On one hand it’s remarkable how devoted he is to tracking down Johann and "ending it all." He dodges the law, he gets caught, he breaks out of prison. But in the end, Tenma is still Tenma. He doesn’t change. He can’t kill anyone. He doesn’t have it in him. We know it. Everyone around him knows it. The only one who doesn’t know it is him. And sadly, my major criticism of the show’s ending is that he’s robbed of the chance to figure it out on his own. When he has the opportunity to kill Johann, Tenma freezes. And we are robbed of Tenma and Johann’s tete-a-tete with fate, morality and humanity, when a random other character intervenes to shoot Johann in the head. We got to see what Anna would do. She wouldn’t shoot. She chose forgiveness. But what would Tenma have done? Would he have given into Johann’s calculations like Brad Pitt gives into Kevin Space in Seven? Or would Tenma have shown Johann that it’s possible to rise above the Monster within us? Once Johann is shot in the head, it’s a forgone conclusion that Tenma would save Johann again. The resolution to the real battle – that we waited 70+ episodes for – we were robbed of.

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Who is the Monster? The sick abusers at Kinderheim 511? Franz Bonaparte for his Red Rose Mansion experiments? Johann for being a stone cold killer? The twins’ mother for sacrificing her daughter? Tenma, for reviving the monster? Anna, for not forgiving the monster? Everyone? No one? And in the end, who wins and who loses? Everyone? No one? Johann carves his path of destruction, but it doesn’t result in his death. But he receives forgiveness and a new life. Tenma finally tracks down Johann, and eventually clears his name, but at tremendous cost, failing to save almost everyone that Johann intended to kill. Anna recovers her memories and clears her brother’s guilt, but at heavy cost of many lives of people she loved. There’s just no black and white, and just when you think you might have someone figured out, a new piece of information makes you reconsider what you thought.

Monster is a great show. But my disconnection with the characters makes it hard for me to say I loved it. But I would recommend it wholeheartedly, especially if you enjoy stories where everything is the color gray and characters have depth and ambiguity vs. being instantly classifiable as heroes and villains.

7 Replies to “Monster: A sort of review”

  1. I’m confident in saying that Monster is my favorite anime of all time at this point. I marathoned through it from sunrise to sunset (with employment and sleep obligations sandwiched in-between) for about a week. The adaptation matched the manga nearly frame by frame, which was awesome since I’m always peeved when if I feel like I missed out on something.

    The story was amazing, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a show that kept me interested and on edge for 70+ episodes. It was complex and easy to follow at the same time. There was a basic layer of hunting Johan on top, but there are several layers exploring evil, past events, forgiveness, and the like. It’s certainly not something to re-watch immediately, but I can see myself revisiting it after a fair amount of time.

    The pacing can get methodical though, and everything starts off slow. I didn’t have any issue with the characters, but I agree that it’s difficult to pin down a “bad” guy, if there is one. However, it’s that focus on realism that really sets this show apart. Reality often lacks that one evil person, and Monster reflects it. Almost every act and individual is believable. Not once did I think “yeah this show is fictional or animated, so of course that could happen in the show but not in real life.”

    It’s an anime masterwork I highly recommend, even if at the same time it’s not a show for everyone. No doubt it is worth a try though.

    1. I have to say I really liked the pacing. I thought it added to the mood quite a bit, and it was great in fleshing out the world. I just got the sense throughout the whole show that the mangaka had a tremendous vision in mind when he wrote the story. As if he knew the minute details of even the most minor characters and how hey fit into the story and might tie into a major storyline 20 episodes later. Just really, really well thought out.

      It definitely requires patience… and dare I say, maturity? There were a couple spots where I felt like “c’mon just shoot the damn gun!” But drawing it out just made the show that much stronger.

  2. Storybooks and parables are so basic, primary methods of learning when we grew up as kids. I love stories that contain such elements of childhood fairytale, and the way that Monster explored, interpreted, and twisted them into its narrative and themes was masterful. The ED clips were haunting and deeply entrancing, and the slow reveal of the whole Monster tale was one of the many highlights for me.

    A series without much bombast or flair, but because of its affecting atmosphere and its complex display of human morality, Monster is one among a few transcendent anime titles.

    1. I hated the ED songs, but the clips were wonderful. Actually one of my favorite scenes is seeing that storybook animated with Mamiko Noto narrating it. The story and visuals is mesmerizing, downright creepy, but it’s the sounds that stick in my head. Bari bari, baki baki, kusha kusha, gokun. Bari bari, baki baki, kusha kusha, gokun.

  3. For me, I got attached to the characters because I found them all so interesting. Tenma, for instance, I can identify with because of his idealism, but at the same time, his decisions do cause a lot of damage, and I don’t believe the series ever asks the viewer to gloss over that — Tenma might be good, but that doesn’t mean every choice he makes is good.

    And Eva might actually be my favorite character. I don’t really like her, per se, but she’s sympathetic to me her behavior is so thoroughly self-destructive, even after she grows up and becomes a better person . . . even though she crawls through a pile of crap to get there first. She’s clearly an asshole and a horrible person at the beginning of the series, so I can’t argue that she doesn’t deserve what she gets to an extent, but that horrible cycle of good deeds and self-punishment is fascinating and frightening to me.

    Grimmer is probably the character I liked most from a “this guy is freaking awesome” standpoint. He can do no wrong in my eyes. Grimmer rules.

    The good inspector is a total freaking creeper in the first half (his utter calmness as his family left him got to me the most), but is totally awesome in the second half. That fight against Roberto is fantastic.

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