It’s been all Urasawa, all the time, around my apartment this last month, as I’ve been busy catching up on three of his series. I’ve reviewed 20th Century Boys and Pluto elsewhere, so that leaves Monster for this post. For the few of you who haven’t read this yet, Monster is the story of Kenzo Tenma, an up-and-coming neurosurgeon working at a hospital in Germany. One night, two patients are rushed to his hospital, each in critical condition: a boy with a gunshot wound and the town’s mayor. Tenma’s superiors tell him to operate on the mayor, even though the boy arrived first. Tenma refuses and goes on to save the boy’s life. Unfortunately, for Tenma, the boy (Johan) grows up to be serial killer. Blamed for Johan’s crimes, Tenma goes on the run in order to prove his own innocence and to catch the monster he helped to survive.
The world doesn’t need another gushing review of the series, so let me give you the short version–people, this is good stuff–and skip straight to some other comments.
This is one of those series I’ve been meaning to pick up ever since it was licensed. Somehow I never quite got around to reading the whole thing. I checked it out from my old library a couple of times, and kept forgetting about it after a volume or two. I’m not sure why it failed to engage me then, but the long delay is giving me a good opportunity compare Urasawa’s work from three different stages of his career. Monster began serialization in 1995; 20th Century Boys in 1999; and Pluto in late 2003.
A lot is the same, of course. The general art style remains fairly consistent–it’s recognizably the work of the same person–and many of the narrative techniques are the same as well. For example, Urasawa often introduces minor characters who appear in a chapter or two and then are never seen again, such as the retired assassin in Monster and the composer in Pluto. They may only be temporarily on the scene, but they still come to life very vividly and add a lot of the overall story.
But there are also places where you can see growth and progression, such as the way Urasawa draws faces. Compare the way that Urasawa draws Dieter in Monster to the way he draws Atom in Pluto. It’s not that Dieter is drawn poorly; that’s far from the case, and Dieter’s face tells us tons about his thoughts and feelings. But Atom’s face is so expressive that it almost pulls me out the narrative. Like many of the characters who meet him, I find his particular charm pretty much irresistible.
Reading all three series within the same month also makes it easy to notice how Urasawa revisits certain themes and archetypes over and over again. The idea of creating a monster is one of these themes: Tenma and Johan in Monster, Kenji and Friend in 20th Century Boys, the robot scientists and their robots in Pluto. Fortunately, Urasawa may be revisiting old themes, but he’s not just repeating himself. Each scenario offers something new. The character types also repeat. There’s not a big jump from Tenma to Kenji, and the character of Nina Fortner seems to be a forerunner of 20th Century Boys‘s Kanna.
And of course, you can’t talk about Monster without talking about Tenma. By the end of the series, the reader has spent so much time with Tenma that it’s easy to forget what he is like when the story begins. The Dr. Tenma we meet in vol. 1 is not that impressive. He’s kind but weak-willed, and he’s letting himself be manipulated by others. He finds himself in a crisis of conscience precisely because he’s been falling short. It took a few volumes for me to understand why so many fans of the series were so very fond of the good doctor. But by the time I reached the last chapter, I’d definitely been converted to their point of view.
I don’t want to spoil any major twists for readers of this post, so I’ll refrain from discussing various events and other characters in great detail. However, I will end by noting that one of my very favorite things about Monster was a character introduced about two-thirds of the way through the series. This character becomes a foil for both Tenma and Johan, and it was fascinating to see how his role unfolds over the last third of the series. I was also pleasantly surprised by some of the directions that Urasawa took the character of Eva. I still wish that there were more women characters in Urasawa’s series, but at least the ones we do get receive complex characterization.
I’m rather sad that I now have no more new volumes of Monster to read. Checking out one volume after another from the library this month has been a huge amount of fun. I found myself looking forward to finding the time to sit down and savor each one; now I’ll have to find something else to replace it. At least I have the anime adaptation, which will be airing on SyFy this fall, as a consolation prize. I’m told it’s a very faithful adaptation, and given that it’s produced by one of my favorite anime companies (Madhouse), I am expecting good things.