Naoki Urasawa’s Monster was the series that got him on my radar when I learned (10 years ago) that Guillermo Del Toro was trying to get a live-action adaptation of the series made for HBO (which ultimately fell through). That was enough to get me to hunt down the manga and slowly, over time, read it through my local library system (impacted by books falling out of and then back into print). Well, at long last, I’ve finished reading it.
The short elevator pitch of Monster, I think, misses a lot. Yes, it is about a doctor, Doctor Tenma, who decided to save the life of a child over a local politician, only for that child to become a murderer. However, there’s so much more to it than that.
I think part of what struck me about this series is how my read was informed by the other Naoki Urasawa manga I was reading alongside it – Master Keaton (which will get its own review). Both works spend a lot of time in post-fall-of-the-Berlin Wall Europe, as various countries are coming to terms with the actions of their communist governments – and with how Germany was grappling with reunification. Monster has a strong sense, from the long term plot of the series, that Urasawa looked at his extensive research he’d done for Master Keaton, and realized that there was so much more to talk about here than these one-and-done (or occasionally short two-to-three-chapter) mystery stories would allow.
So, as Tenma travels through Germany, seeking Johan, the child he saved who turned out to be a monster, he’s also traveling through the lingering scars, festering wounds, and tender bruises of German reunification. The plot touches on things like German neo-Nazi movements, and questions of whether de-Nazification was effective enough. There are remnants of secret police organizations like the Stasi in East Germany and the StB in what is now the Czech Republic and what happened to the members of those groups in the new governments.
It’s clear from the story that Urasawa is very well aware that these are messy, touchy issues, with no easy fixes, and the framework makes it clear that he and these characters can’t fix them – and indeed aren’t even going to try. However, by the series’ conclusion, there’s a sense that Johan Liebert is, in some respects, an anthropomorphic incarnation of the lingering wounds left in the wake of the Second World War and the Cold War. Killing him doesn’t heal the problems, and he cannot – will not – be ignored. Urasawa doesn’t come out and say this outright – he respects the readers’ intelligence enough for that – but the way the legacies of these former Communist governments each contributed to the creation of Johan makes it pretty clear.
This was a brilliantly written, intensely paced, thriller. I do deeply wish that Del Toro had gotten that TV series adaptation, and I hope someday he gets to make this, and that a streaming service will give the time to fully tell the story. Yes, we had an anime adaptation of the manga once in the past. We also got a previous adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and we also got a film version of that story later as well which was also great. I could see this working for Monster as well.
Monster is currently only available in print editions as of this writing, and you can pick up the first volume through RightStuf, Amazon, and Alibris. Buying anything through those links helps to support the site.
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