It is another example of the sort of manga that manga fans will point you at when you say 'I don't like manga'. It works to, because, as we discussed in another post, quite often the people who say they 'don't like manga', actually just don't like a particular form of manga, and Monster is most assuredly not THAT sort of manga.
In the Coen Brothers recent movie version of Cormac Mcarthy's novel, No Country for Old Men, the protagonist can't live with the knowledge that he didn't take water to a dying man, so he gets out of bed and reverses that decision. This choice has enormous repercussions for him. A similar moral dilemma causes a similarly serious set of problems for Doctoer Kenzo Tenma, the protagonist at the centre of Monster, Nokai Urasawa's epic story of a man who sets out to undo the evil he has unwittingly unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.
As you will have guessed from even that short description, Monster is a complex tale, it has a demanding narrative that requires a good deal of work from the reader, for which the reader is rewarded over and over again. The illustration is lush and detailed and the architectural drawings of Dusseldorf, where our story begins ,and where Doctor Tenma is working in the Eisler Memorial Hospital, and Prague, are quite spectacular.
(*Once again I will have to be respectful of the fact that some of you are currently reading Monster. These manga scanlations were made some time ago by Manga Screener who removed them as soon as the project was optioned in the US -I will attempt not to put in any spoilers. I'm actually not going to put some of the covers here because the descriptions on these (unlike the US covers)give key elements of the plot away, but they are so well designed, and amusing, that I can't resist posting one or two).
From the very beginning of the story, which Urasawa informs us is a horrible, or horrifying tale, the pace is relentless. There is no messing about, right from the start the lone adapted quote from the Book of Revelation, which has been changed to 'Johannes' Apocalypse', quickly catches our eye and the reader is at once aware that the shadow of the Beast has been cast over the text. Something awful will happen here, sooner or later. And then, as quickly as a superhero pulls his pants off and flies away in his tights to save the world from a baddie, we have moved from Doctor Tenma's apartment room and his relationship, to the operating theatre, where we are elbow deep in blood, and on to a confrontation with an angry patient and then to a crime scene and then a near crash and then another operation and then a broken relationship and then murders galore and... Throughout all this there is a constant dialogue of ethical dilemmas, of moral mazes and pondering on the human condition. By the end of volume one it is apparent to us that the good doctor, with the very best of intentions, has delivered a Monster to the world; and his own problems have only just begun.
Okay, I'm not kidding here, I'm not using hyperbole, the Monster anime took my breathe away. I sat open-mouthed at episode One, from the pseudo Gregorian chants of the beginning credits, to the credits at the end, ushered out by a freaky illustration from an imagined children's book (read the manga) and a haunting melody from David (ex-Japan front man) Sylvian. I watched it all over again, immediately, then watched the opening credits a third time:
I have a theory about why I may have reacted so strongly to this, it's because it's an adult animation - unashamedly so. I don't mean 'adult' in the sense of restricted content, but adult in the sense that it is a work of animation, made for an adult audience. This seldom if ever happens in the West, if you think about it. Fritz the Cat was aimed at 'adults', but it wasn't exactly intellectually stimulating, and it was smutty and it looked like a kiddy film - it's easy to see why Crumb hates it. Almost all of the animation that has claimed to be for an adult audience marginalised that audience by being genre material first, such as 'sci-fi' animation, or restricted content, or just a lot of drinking and swearing - usually by animals.
The Lord of the Rings animation, by the same studio that brought us Fritz, only marginally had adults in mind as a target audience, and whilst The Triplets of Belville was great fun for all, including adults, it too had a lot for kids to love because it was aimed at the entire family. In fact, almost all recent animation, including TV animation like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and even Adult Swim, still have their weather-eye on kids; and of course the lucrative toy tie-in. I particularly hate this because it allows the apologist-critics to indulgein double-think and add the caveat in their reviews that shows like The Simpsons 'really aren't for kids' - so they have the excuse they need towatch the lowly art of animation, and still snear at the cartoon medium.
Perhaps King of the Hill is the closest attempt at animation geared more at the parents than the kiddywinkles, but it is still full of kiddy-appropriate fun, and it looks like a kids show. Monster, on the other hand, looks nothing like kiddy-friendly animation, and the beginning credits will get the little ones diving behind the sofa quicker the Doctor Who's W00000-OOOO theme:
I am awed by Monster. Not just by its size, it is, after all, a tale spread over 200 plus pages in every one of its 18 Volumes - but also by its vision and its scope, and its author's trust in the abilities ofhis readers.