For our last group post, we decide it’s best to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Monster…well, we surely couldn’t leave this out of Manga Movable Feast right? So hope you enjoy our discussion (note, spoilers are in this post) -Justin
Justin: In our lifetime we have to make a number of decisions that affect not only our well being, but the well being of others around us. Just one decision could potentially change the life of a person or a number of people. That’s why it kind of makes sense for Urasawa to have a main character be the one character who has to value saving the lives of people: his name is Tenma, and he’s a super talented Doctor.
The story of Monster begins with this young Doctor, who seems to have it all: the gift of saving the lives of everyone he operates, a woman who seems to love him, backing by this woman’s father, who happens to be the head of the hospital Tenma works at. Needless to say, for a man who came from humble beginnings, Tenma’s luck was pretty great. But luck is always fickle, and for Tenma, his luck changed when he met the Turkish woman that one day. He had to be switched to operate on someone else as opposed to the woman’s husband, despite the fact that they came first. The husband died, and, amidst grief, she cried her frustrations out on him. “We was here first” ended up haunting him for a good while. It certainly haunted him when he had to be called in to save a young boy who had been shot in the head, and was told to switch to someone else again. Tenma had a decision to make: to save the boy or to save someone who would become important for the hospital?
He chose to save the boy. This ends up becoming a decision that seemed to be right at the time, but as it turned out, saving this one child turned out to produce one of the cruelest killers in manga in Johan Liebert. How? Why could this have happened? It is this one twist that hooked me into Monster. Admittedly, I had seen this play out in animated form back around my sophomore year of college and found that more chilling than page form, but it may have been the opposite for those who read the manga first. Whatever the case, to make us think about what is right and what is wrong — Monster ended up asking just that throughout this story. It also lets us know we don’t know how our futures will turn out based on the decisions we make: after all, the decision to save Johan turned out to be some sort of luck for Tenma as he ended up becoming the director of the hospital. That took a matter of deaths and for the two children to disappear from his sight, only to reappear into his life and change his fortunes again.
Anyways, just reading how this all turned out kept me reading and reading until the end, so I could know what happened next. What did you all think about Monster?
Manjiorin: For me, I’m always a fan of a good psychological thriller so Monster instantly fit my bill. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first stumbled across the series, but I stayed because of Tenma. Here’s a man who seemingly has everything and loses it all in one instant. The story could be about Tenma getting “revenge” or simply just about him trying to reclaim the life he had, but the series wound up being a lot more than that. Is the series’ really about Tenma, Nina, or Johan? Are good and evil — right and wrong — really so black and white? With all that and more Urasawa constructs an eighteen volume epic that feels intense all the way up to its end. My only complaint that I have with this series is its ending, as it didn’t feel quite as intense as its lead-up. What about you, Emily?
AnimeEmily: Monster was my second Urasawa manga, and even though I had already read Pluto and had a vague understanding of how the general tone of the story would be (not a happy one), in many ways I had really underestimated what a ride it would bring me on. Urasawa really gets down and dirty here, constantly showing us how despicable humans can be, especially when it comes to Johan. In a way, the constant worrying is what kept me reading. How far would Johan go? Would Tenma really succeed in killing him, along with an irreplaceable part of himself? Would good ultimately triumph and at what price would it come? These questions ran through my head constantly as I tore through volume after volume. One of the things that really drew me into Monster was how Urasawa constantly brought up these moral questions about humans and their nature. Despite the doom and gloom that accompanied a large part of the manga, though, that small hope for happiness and a better tomorrow never quite dies away. Urasawa shows us humanity at its absolute worst, but he also shows us some of the best humanity has to offer.
Manjiorin: That’s interesting that you point out that by possibly killing Johan Tenma loses an “irreplaceable” part of himself. Despite that, did you feel like the consequences of Johan’s actions became Tenma’s responsibility? If the “law” won’t catch and punish Johan, should Tenma? I don’t necessarily think Johan becomes Tenma’s responsibility; how can we ultimately be responsible for every potential outcome of every decision we make? I think that Tenma chases Johan because that’s the kind of person he is; I think it’s less about his own personal vendetta (though righting his life is definitely a part of it) and more about saving other people from suffering from his decision. One could argue that Johan didn’t leave Tenma much choice… What do you think? When is it okay to take the law into your own hands?
AnimeEmily: Ah, this question is one of those tough ones that Urasawa loves to bring up. Did Tenma have any obligation to dedicate years of his life to fixing a “mistake” that, at the time, seemed like a step in the right direction? I don’t think anyone would have held it against Tenma had he decided to let Johan get away (assuming people figured out who the real perpetrator was) because no one would think to put the blame for Johan’s crimes on the man who saved his life. But that’s the thing: Tenma knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he let Johan run around playing with people’s lives, the very things Tenma, as a doctor, aimed to save. In a sense, no one else would have been able to go after Johan to the extent that Johan does because of that unbreakable connection the two have. It’s honestly hard to say whether it’s okay to go and take the law into your hands like Tenma does. Technically, it’s there to protect and take the necessary action against criminals because if everyone, each with his own set of morals and beliefs, tried to do the same, only chaos would ensue. However, at the same time, the law is carried out by people who, as they do in Monster, make mistakes and there are always those who slip through the cracks.
For all intents and purposes, though, I do think Tenma was in the right when he decided to try and carry out his own justice. After all, Tenma is supposed to be the hero, the person who we can trust to be right, the light to Johan’s darkness. Had he not, he probably would have ended up in a not so cushy jail cell for a while (or forever, who knows) while Johan, who really counted on Tenma pursuing him, killed people who didn’t really deserve to die. Sure the police may have caught on eventually, but by that time, who knows how many more would have died. I think that’s when the law is trumped, at least in this case. When the number of people who suffer and die is lower than those who are saved through individual action, like Tenma’s, I think vigilantism is allowed, and perhaps even justified. As with all things, that concept tends not to translate well in real life, though. Most vigilantes tend to end up like poor Milan Kolacsh– dead, unfulfilled, and leaving behind loved ones who would have preferred they had not tried to be the hero.
Justin: Well in this case, it’s a tough call because this isn’t merely a case of “if you go to the law, you’ll get help.” Throughout the manga we had to figure out who to trust and who not to trust, and as it turned out, believing that the law would ultimately catch Johan would prove futile, thanks to a number of connections high up in the police force that couldn’t really focus on Johan. As Fritz Vardemann had asked to Tenma, “Can I believe in you?” Tenma’s journey to try and do something about Johan was merely solitary, and something he had to take on alone. Especially since there wasn’t a lot of people to believe in — and that includes the aforementioned Fritz, who was going to represent Tenma in court after he ended up getting arrested by the police. Fritz always had a desire to prove that the accused were not guilty of their crimes, based on the fact that his father was accused of being a spy, and was demonized for it. He used that as motivation to help those who were truly innocent. But one could say it was false motivation, since the story about his father was true; Fritz just didn’t want to believe it. Needless to say, not even the law could really step in unless actions were taken to ensure that they did, but it really couldn’t just be any action — this action had to be taken by one man: it had to be Tenma. His desire to try and stop Johan ultimately was the catalyst for a good portion of the other events to take place. So I guess my answer leans to taking things into your own hands, but try not to get into any situations where that becomes an issue.
You know, all this talk about trust and vigilantism makes me think about the evil presented in Monster, and it goes a lot of ways. We meet people who represent humans at their low, like Dr. Heinemann and Eva, with only a goal in mind and little disregard of anyone who won’t help them get to said goal; you have people like Johan and Roberto, who are about as destructive as they possibly can be, and they have Kinderheim 511 to thank for that; and then you even have Tenma and Anna Liebert, who are the ones seeking justice, but they seek it by killing, or at least try to do so, until they soon realize why they can’t do it. There are different types of evils that persist in Monster, and it leads me to ask some questions: Is evil determined when you are born or does it depend on how you’re raised? How come certain accomplishments have to involve those who have nothing to do with it? This is always talked about in circles, but it fits for Monster since it touches on those a lot. For me, it has to do with what is around you. Needless to say, living in an environment like Kinderheim 511, or having to deal with having new parents at a young age all the time can definitely impact how one can grow up. Of course, growing up in luxury and prestige can also lead one to evil if they decide they want to use that against those below them.
Manjiorin: I’ll interject here and go ahead and pose the question: Was Johan born evil or “raised” evil? Initially in the series, I would definitely have said that Johan was born evil, but as the truth of Kinderheim 511 is revealed, it almost seems that not only was Johan essentially “programmed” to be “evil” but that he’s also horribly traumatized. I suppose I mistakenly went into the series thinking Tenma was fighting against evil personified in Johan, when the trauma and the evil runs so much deeper than one man’s actions. I doubt very much that one person can simply be “evil;” I think that the theme of “evil” in the series comes from a series of decisions that result in a warped man, just like Tenma’s decision resulted in him having to desperately race against time to save lives. So, using Johan as an example, I think “nurture” wins out in this one. What do you all think?
AnimeEmily: For the most part, I have to agree with you Manjiorin regarding the idea that Johan’s upbringing probably had a great influence over the malicious person he grew up to be. His childhood, to put it mildly, was far from ideal and it’s understandable, in a way, that the events in Kinderheim 511 would have left an undeniable print on him. In a few instances, Urasawa gives us a peek into the tortured mind of the man who wanted to die, be it at the hands of his twin or those of Tenma, and what he shows us hints that Johan’s evil has it’s roots in his traumatic upbringing. However, the blame for the evil that manifests itself in Johan can’t be entirely excused by his upbringing. He made calculated decisions and mercilessly plowed down anyone who stood in his way. Sure he may have some painful memories, but so did Grimmer and Nina, neither of whom devolved into the monster Johan essentially became. It’s impossible to say, too, that he was never treated like a normal child and loved. He was, but he decided to reject it and continue down his increasingly blood stained path. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that, though a person may not be born predestined to be good or evil, he does have the ability to choose which side of that moral road he’s going to go down. Each person has the capacity for good and evil, and the one he is ultimately considered to be is something he determines for himself.
Justin: Those are some pretty good points. Thanks to their decisions people like Grimmer and even Dieter chose the path to being a good person, though that involved a bit of a struggle. Sometimes though, it takes a number of events before a person can truly change into someone good and kind. It admittedly seemed hopeless that Eva would ever change into anyone I could like. She proved early on why she loved Tenma: because he was her father’s lackey, and a genius surgeon. He would be the one to give her more money and she would be able to live a life of luxury. But once Tenma decided to ignore her father’s order, she ended up tossing him aside like he never existed. It’s then a tale of Eva growing from someone you just wish would go away to someone who ended up learning that people can care, and you can’t just stomp out their kindness with anything fake. We’ve seen throughout Monster Eva’s downfalls since her father died, but a meeting with a seemingly minor character named Martin ends up changing her for what it seems to be for good.
Martin is about as minor a character as one could ever be: he’s just one of the complementary cogs on a large group of people. His task? He has to be with Eva. And he knows it’s trouble. It’s something he knows he’s gonna hate. But yet he has to do it anyways. He sounds like a true professional. Of course, this doesn’t exactly please Eva, since their lifestyles are about as different as they could possibly be. However, Martin knows what’s in store for Eva after she does her job: she’s gonna die. He easily could have just stuck with the plan and did what he was supposed to do. But he didn’t. He chose to save Eva. His choice to make sure he’s save manages to finally change Eva, despite everything that had happened to her up to that point. He was one of the breaking points. The other happened to be meeting Tenma once again to finally say, “Ok, maybe Eva has really changed after all!” So what did you guys think of where Eva started and how she ended up?
AnimeEmily: At the start of the manga, I would have never thought I’d be as intrigued by Eva as I ended up being. Eva starts out terribly conceited, something she proves with her comment regarding the supposed unequal value of human lives. Her only loves in life are money and the pretty things it can buy her. I’ll admit that when I saw her slowly drowning in her addiction to alcohol, left only with superficial relationships that ultimately lead to divorce and a quickly dwindling pile of money, I felt like she was getting what she was deserved. Ironically, my feelings quickly changed as the smidgen of pity I had felt for her grew and my attitude regarding this tragic woman changed. What ultimately lead me to change my tune was seeing the look on her face when her one attempt at moving on and trying to be normal and maybe open herself up ends in misery as she sees her gardener, an ordinary guy who had been pursuing her and invited her to his home for Christmas, reunited with his wife, having completely forgotten about her. Eva may not have been the most outstanding person out there, but, no matter how much I may have disliked the selfishness in her personality, seeing the momentary sadness in her face, the Christmas present she had bought for the man’s child in hand, made me think that she deserved the chance to be able to move on.
Though the Eva after this event isn’t a completely new person, she does become a slightly more redeemable, or, rather, more understandable one. Despite being the one who tossed Tenma out the door once his career was basically over, she deeply regrets the decision and is unable to get over Tenma and the memories of those days they spent together. I suppose the saddest thing about Eva is how once she finally finds herself falling for another person and almost grasps the happiness that has been eluding her for years, it’s snatched right from her hands. Martin dies and Eva is left behind in what seems to be fate having a good laugh at this woman. In a sense, what ended up attracting me the most to Eva was how tragic her life was. She starts out having it all, only to lose everything, and once she starts to finally get things right, loses it all again. She doesn’t fall down, though. She keeps marching on, a little bit stronger and, in the end, we see a woman almost completely different from the person who had sneered at the thought of a mere farmer’s life having the same value as a famous Opera singer’s. Eva is a painfully flawed person, but she’s also one of the most real.
Manjiorin: Eva is really easy to dislike, dismiss and vilify once things start to go downhill for Tenma. We get glimpses before she calls it quits with Tenma; we know that if he loses his status, so goes his fiancee. It’s no surprise when she does what she does to Tenma. With everything Tenma goes through, Eva and the damage she done was sidelined (but not forgotten) in my mind. When she resurfaces as a sympathetic character worthy of redemption, you start to see that Urasawa may not have set out to makes the villains in his series so black and white. The only thing that Urasawa set out to do, I think, was to make his characters people whose lives are impacted and changed by both the decisions they make and the decisions of others. Emily summed up my feelings about Eva pretty well, in that she is one of the most flawed, broken characters, but also the most real. So many of Urasawa characters are like that, broken but worthy of redemption. Eva isn’t my favorite character, but she is definitely one of the most interesting and memorable of the bunch.
So ok, what are all your thoughts on Monster? What characters did you like or dislike in the manga? What about anything we didn’t cover? Anything else you want to say, please feel free to share in the comments!