There are times as an anime fan when I want a series to watch that’s off the beaten path. Something that may be considered a little too dry or complex. These sorts of anime fall out of fandom discussions quickly, eventually slipping into obscurity.
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster fits all of this criteria, as the series isn’t exactly what I would call a “pop-corn” anime. It’s probably far from it, because even when it came out in 2004, I can’t think of many people who found themselves talking about the series. My friends certainly didn’t, and neither did I.
I tried to watch the series when it came out, but in 2004 I was still in high school. I had other interests, and what might be thought of as “high-brow” anime wasn’t among them. It wasn’t until I was a handful of years older and gave it try a the second time that I really came to enjoy this gem of a series.
So, today I do want to talk about this anime, and all that it has to offer. I don’t know many people personally that actually enjoy it, which I think is a shame. First though, time for obligatory self-promotion…
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Anyway, let’s continue with the rest of the content. So, Monster is a weird series in fandom. Funnily enough, this series is ranked fairly highly on “My Anime List”. This is a little odd, I have to say. I rarely hear anyone talk about this show at all, but it does seem to be fairly popular in the grand scheme.
Think I’m joking? Take a look at this screenshot. That was taken just as I was writing this post.
Though, I do wonder how many people added it merely by its reputation. It is known for being an intelligent anime. The series tells a very perceptive and complicated story, so it isn’t something easily bandied about.
Outside of anime reviewers or very small corners of the internet, it just isn’t discussed despite the fairly high ratings. Therefore I can only conclude one of two things.
Firstly, that it is a show a lot of people enjoy, but simply don’t discuss at length due to its nature. Secondly, is that Monster has fallen into that realm of obscurity that I mentioned before. Either way, this is a series worth talking about.
It isn’t a typical anime in many ways. It doesn’t follow the standard formula, nor does it pretend to try. In the near endless flood of anime of today, you’ll still be hard pressed to find shows quite like this one.
I like anime that push the limits of the medium. Fantasy and magic found within anime is almost akin to the platformers, role-playing games, and shooters of the gaming world. Even anime aimed at older viewers seem to have some sort of super natural quality to them, and a vast majority are a dime a dozen.
Finding something that manages to break the confines of gaming as we understand it can be a bit difficult. The same is true for anime.
Monster certainly accomplishes that goal, and without too much fantastical idiocy to go along with it. This isn’t a series filled with magic, but I promise you that it has plenty of mystery. If you haven’t watched Monster, Today I’m going to explain why you should.
This is not a review, this is purely a suggestion.
Word of warning: This series can be incredibly offensive to anyone with a firm faith in religion to the point they follow it blindly and refuse to study it. If your faith in Christianity is so strong that you cannot even question the bible even slightly, keep away from this thing. It’s not for you, and it isn’t intended to be.
More on that later, when I discuss the intellectual ethos of the series.
Summary without spoilers: The series takes place in the 80’s. We follow the story of a Japanese man by the name of Kenzo Tenma. He is a young doctor based out of Germany. As a skilled neurosurgeon, he’s earned the attention and praise of people in high places. Due to his high standing he is placed in a rather precarious position, forced to make a choice that he really doesn’t want to make.
Two people need complicated life saving operations. One person in need is a political figurehead, the other person in need is a child.
Tenma is the best of the best. There is no one his equal in terms of skill. Due to how well respected he is, Tenma is expected to bow down to the political bias of the hospital. They want him to operate on the figurehead, thus dooming the child to die.
He has been at the mercy of these kinds of decisions before, doing as he was told with a respect to authority. However to doom a child this way is a decision he refuses to make, and goes to save the child’s life instead.
Ultimately this decision will come back to haunt him. Beyond this, I dare to step into massive spoiler territory. Instead of talking about that, I’m going to cover a few other details. I really want you to watch this series if you haven’t, and I refuse to be the one to spoil it for you.
Instead I will say this:
The story is as much a mystery as it is thriller. It’s slow paced, but it is by no means a slog to sit through. If you take it slow and don’t try to binge watch it, you’re in for a real treat.
Everything in this anime toes an emotionally grey line. You cannot expect complete altruism either, neither from our protagonists or the side cast. Even the best characters have a dark side, and sometimes that side is vastly unsettling.
You cannot expect firm answers or conclusions to every tiny detail in the show. This series isn’t going to hold your hand. It wants you to come up with your own conclusions based on what you see.
What you can expect is a story that is very well written, with characters that are as multidimensional as any anime could ever offer. What you’ll find here is a truly mature anime. It is one that is certainly worth your time to give it a try.
I don’t know if you will “like it” per say. However, I can say that Monster is an experience in and of itself, and that alone is reason to watch it.
The Intellectual Ethos
If you don’t want complicated yip-yap bypass this section. Actually, maybe just bypass the anime at that point. It is a very complicated series, and as I fan I have to accept that.
Don’t believe me? Strap in, we’re diving deep on this one.
This series begins with a biblical quote, and right out of the gate Monster refuses to be simple. This quote is from the book of Revelations, the final one in the new testament. The quote looks like this:
Now, it’s very important to note that interpreters of Revelations typically have four key ways to view this section of the bible. Now, I’m not hugely religious, but I’ll highlight the main four in very simple terms.
- Some believe that most of the events in Revelations have already taken place.
- Meanwhile, others take it as describing the long chain of events that may take place, or is in the process of taking place.
- The third group are those that find this book to be of the future, and place the book primarily in the end of times (which has not happened yet).
- The final group view it as symbolic pictures of what they call “timeless truths”, applying the book as the standard victory of good over evil.
Fortunately, the message of Revelation does not depend on adopting a particular point of view. Any of those main four will do. So, why in the hell am I bringing this up then?
Well because it ties into the series. The quote wouldn’t be there mindlessly. I would argue this series touches upon all four views depending on what character you happen to following in regards to the series. The ideological undertones will conflict and contrast in many ways. They are not always blatantly obvious, but they could be somewhat offensive based on your own religious beliefs this particular section of the bible.
But that isn’t all, either…
Buried deep into this anime there are two core ideologies at play. Both of them are on display for the main character, Tenma, at almost all times.
One ideology is complex and morally grey area. The other is an emotionally driven conclusion based on the facts that the main protagonist will never have an answer for.
The first ideology is in regards to personal agency and the value of ethical intervention. What would you do when placed between two horrible outcomes? Would you act, or merely just stand still? Something bad will happen either way, so what option will you choose? Is there truly a “least bad” option?
As a doctor, Tenma made a choice, and he makes choices every day. He often reflects on those choices. Sometimes choosing to save one life results in the death of another. The grieving woman in the image above is someone that Tenma has to face in the first episode. This is a flashback scene. He can only watch as she morns the death of her husband, a man that needed his help.
A man that he chose to deny because of the orders passed down to him by the hospital. A man he could have saved…
This loss of life was not needed, and it weighs on Tenma. This event will influence his decision between the young boy and the political figurehead in the series, and every event thereafter.
This is in essence what is commonly known as the “The Trolley Problem”, as coined by English philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot back in the mid 1970’s.
The simple version of this ethical problem is known as “Bystander at the Switch“. It goes a little something like this:
There is trolley that’s out of control. It is speeding along railway, and it cannot be stopped. Up ahead, there are five people on the track, unable to move. If the trolley hits them, they will die. Now, there is where you enter into the picture. You are able to pull lever nearby. However, if you pull this lever, the trolley will switch tracks. Sadly, there is one person on that other track. If you pull the lever, that person will die instead.
Thus, you have two options. The first is to do nothing, effectively allowing the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. The second option is to pull the lever. You’ll save the lives of five people, but by your direct involvement with the lever, the trolley will still kill one person.
So, what choice do you decide to make?
This is the first question the series asks, and answers through Tenma. The start of the series begins with this same sort of ethical problem. The choice he makes will carry through the entire series. His decision lingers with him in the aftermath.
The second ideology is less complicated, but no less deep. It is the ideology of perseverance in the face of dire straits and negative outcomes. How do you cope with your choices after you’ve made them? How do you live with yourself, when the choice you make is the wrong one?
Tenma’s choice is one that impacts his life, and the lives of the other people around him. He thought he was doing a good deed, but that deed is no more than a devil’s deal.
This is the crux of the series. It is what ultimately drives the entire narrative I mentioned above.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I doubt most will. Ultimately, what makes this show so well written is the minutia of little details. It comes down to the subject of interpretation. These are the same things that I feel hold this series back from being discussed at length.
Let’s be honest, trying to discuss Monster honestly has a lot of ideological landmines. I barely scratched the surface when it comes to the way the series presents its ideas, thoughts and themes.
That being said, the series is also a rabbit hole, there is such a thing as diving too deep. Let’s also be honest about that too. It’s easy to dive too deep on this one, and that can make it hard to relate to.
Some fans may end up seeing something that isn’t really there to find at all. Still the mere idea that you’re able to do that, is itself a nod to the main theme of Monster and the story it tells.
I can’t honestly review this thing because even trying to do that negates the reason why so many of us love this show in the first place.
I can’t just say “It’s awesome, go watch it!” nor can I say “The inevitable flaws are still worth your time…” because that alone isn’t enough to enjoy this sort of show. Saying “because you might like it” is a direct slap in the face for everything this show tries to do.
I doubt you’ll enjoy everything the series gives you. If you’re like me, there will be times that you will be flat out disgusted by certain characters and their world view. There are times you will not agree the subject matter, ethos, and ideology. However, you must expect it. That is the point of the title, after all.
These aren’t the monsters under the bed. These are the monsters of humanity. Everyone in the show could, at least in part, be classified as such. Just as in reality, we all have our vices and our failings.
We are all able to be monsters under the right conditions and circumstances. In the series, the characters argue that conditions and circumstances often do justify their actions, grotesque or not.
Monstrous, or not…
This isn’t an anime that I would merely pluck from my shelf and cram into the hands of my best buddies, because as I said, they wouldn’t like it anyway.
However, I’m going to be a pretentious twat for a second. Yes, I’m going to be “that asshole“. If you consider yourself a true fan of the anime medium in its entirety, or you consider yourself an anime expert even slightly, you have to watch this show.
There are no “if’s”, “and’s”, or “but’s” about it. If you are a person that is a collector of the medium, or consider yourself an authority of the medium in any possible way, shape or form, do your due diligence! Plant your ass in a chair and sit through it.
Sit through ALL of it, and then discuss it. This is a series worth talking about. It should not be left to rot in the recess of fandom, alone and forgotten.
This has been Kernook of The Demented Ferrets…
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