[Synopsis]: Kenzou Tenma (Kiuchi Hidenobu) was a renowned, genius, neurologist and a rising star in the medical world until he disobeyed a direct order from Eisler Memorial Hospital’s chief director. Instead of operating on the newly arrived Mayor who had promised to fund the hospital in the near future, Tenma made decision based on his own morality to save Johan Liebert (Sasaki Nozomu), the adopted son of an East German diplomat who had arrived first. At the cost of his social standing, Tenma saves the young boy though, soon after, the director and several doctors at the hospital are found poisoned and Johan and his twin sister Anna (Noto Mamiko), missing. Years later, Johan’s reappearance in front of Tenma reveals him to be a callous murderer which sparks Tenma’s own journey to discover Johan’s true identity and right the wrong of saving him years ago.
It should immediately speak to the strength of Monster’s many attributes that it is hard to say which one of them is truly the most beneficial or compelling given how powerful each of the show’s components are. The cast of the show is terrific and expansive and while the main group of characters is highly engaging, the supporting cast is captivating in its own right. The show hits upon a means of instantly humanizing certain characters, often through their relationships with others and this leads to majority of the cast feeling overwhelmingly familiar and understandable.
Though at times Tenma fades in and out of the story in favor of exploring the current events from other perspectives and gaining insight elsewhere in the world, he is doubtlessly the protagonist and an important person to highlight. He is well characterized from the beginning – more than simply a meek doctor under the thumb of the hospital director, he is frustrated and conflicted, concerned and at a times full of regret. One can clearly see why he behaves the way he does and his sense of morality both influences his character heavily as well as the themes of the show. His development is as subtle as it is substantial and over the course of 74 episodes he is tasked with continuously reevaluating what he believes in and what he must do to continue moving forward.
Given the nature of the story, the other character of greatest import to elaborate upon is Johan, though the main cast of characters features highly compelling and interesting characters across the board. The titular ‘Monster’ of the series, he is certainly characterized as such though it is not purely his mercilessness and cold intelligence that sets him up as such but rather also his charisma and frightening ability to bring out the worst in people and manipulate them to his will. Johan is treated much like a horror monster, rarely seen but effectively ever-present though sometimes far away with many layers between him and the events transpiring. Though he himself is only intermittently seen, he is utterly core to the narrative and learning about his past – what drives him and what made him the way he is, is the focus of much of the show. His relationship with Tenma is endlessly engaging and through each horrific action and tragedy he seems to ask of Tenma whether or not he still believes that all human lives are truly equal.
Though characters such as Anna and Lunge are wonderfully complex and fascinating, the supporting cast deserves special attention here. Monster employs an immense number of people to tell its story, many of whom are surprisingly deep and memorable. A news reporter is more than simply an exasperated man with deadlines – he has a wife that left him and he wants to get back together but can’t figure out how. The gun instructor is more than a gruff, military man – he raises a daughter whose mother he killed in Myanmar during the war. Everybody is interconnected though it rarely if ever feels overly coincidental. Johan’s presence has warped these people together for better or worse and watching how they interact is like observing the ominous wake of a monster as it passes. Though the cast exhibits a myriad of personalities, a propensity for development, and a complicated parallelism that binds them together, it is the way their experiences and the events that transpire inform their identities that is the true masterwork of the show.
Following the character discussion, it is pertinent to highlight the many varying character designs featured. Not only are the designs distinct and set apart each member of the massive cast from one another but their variety in facial structure, body-type, and mannerisms complicate the cast on a visual level immensely. Characters aside, the show goes a long way in establishing the atmosphere of each scene and a great deal of Monster’s intensity and anxiety can be attributed to it’s darker and more brooding tones. The countless environments and townscapes are beautiful and distinct as the story travels to each location.
Just as Monster’s characters are endlessly compelling and interesting to watch, so too is its narrative which exhibits numerous strengths and relatively no weaknesses. The first episode is quite gripping – it begins with the introduction of Dr. Tenma and his position within the hospital and one gets an immediate sense of it’s hierarchical nature and the politics at play as well as the source of his frustration and conflicted feelings. The subject matter of the first episode ties very well into the theme it introduces – the equality or inequality of human lives and it ends on a cliffhanger involving the murder of Johan’s adoptive parents. The second episode doubles down on the thematic ideas expressed in the first and its events really draw the viewer into a haunting and unfair world. The first several episodes serve as a great hook into the series yet can hardly anticipate the epic and sprawling story to follow.
Of all of Monster’s qualities it is perhaps its pacing that will be what challenges most viewers. The story moves at a very methodical and deliberate pace and while the subject matter of each episode is usually quite thrilling it has a tendency to hint and prod at many realizations and future scenes rather than rushing into them quickly and this slower pace may detract from the show for some viewers. There are no real filler episodes and effectively everything that happens has a place within the overarching narrative. After the show gets rolling, it does pan away from Tenma for periods at a time to investigate and develop other characters and plots which are equally if not more interesting. The latter half of the show is, if possible, even more exciting and the revelations roll in one after another in a way that makes Monster very hard to put down.
The story is positively fascinating but it would not share in the success it does without its pervasive and intelligent use of themes to tie everything together. The list of themes is extensive and includes such ideas as the equality of human life, the implication of names and identities, amnesia and memories, good and evil, and whether or not the titular ‘Monsters’ exist. These themes form an ongoing dialogue with the events of the show and its characters and enliven each development hugely. The interconnected nature of the cast and the parallelism shared between them is further complicated by these overarching ideas which make Monster both assertive and engrossing.
The last thing to touch upon is the show’s use of allegory which, in juxtaposition to its themes as well as the backstories of its characters, provides uniquely thrilling and mysterious insight into its cast. Through the presence of picture books and certain repeated phrases and stories, Monster continuously creates intelligent, narrative implications and foreshadows future events which are a major factor in the overall strength of the show. Monster exhibited some of the most pertinent and well organized allegory I have seen.
Though Monster’s visuals were electrifying and gripping, the presentation wouldn’t have been nearly as strong had they not been set against such a strong soundtrack. The music was wonderfully dramatic and very tonally focused, sometimes slow and brooding but at other times swelling to a climax alongside the visuals and subject matter. As a whole the sound design was excellent and on top of the soundtrack, the use of certain techniques like a progressively faster beating heartbeat and the downpour of rain slowly becoming deafening as the scene builds added an unexpected grandeur to the scenes. The creak of a door, the sound of scuffling footsteps, and the like were very atmospheric elements and when combined with the music were integral to the success of Monster’s presentation.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Monster represents a show that was engaging and gripping on all levels and the intelligence of its design shone through in each scene and development. Though the initially slower episodes that followed the story’s lengthy introduction unfolded rather leisurely, the majority of the show and particularly its latter half were incredibly captivating and increasingly hard to put down.
I gave Monster a 10 because it was intelligent, insightful, provocative, complicated, and a myriad other things that augmented its tenacious story and brilliant characters. The way in which people were shaped by their experiences, the thematic implications layered across scenes and events, the atmospheric presentation, the compelling supporting cast of characters, and the inventive use of allegory all coalesced to make for an incredibly captivating show.
Monster occupies a variety of different genres and features some of the best of each. Those looking for a fantastic, psychological drama will be thrilled with the manner in which the show operates. The mystery and horror elements are executed to perfection as well and will likely keep fans of those genres captivated practically all throughout. The only concern I would voice is that the length of the show and its pacing require some patience from the viewer and on a case by case basis the show may be too long-winded for some people.