Anime Reviews: Monster
Some Basic Information About the Series
Title: Monster a.k.a. Naoki Urasawa's Monster
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 74 episodes
Air Dates: 4/6/2004 to 9/27/2005
Age Rating: 17+ (mild language, strong violence, dark or disturbing thematic elements, brief sexual content)
Summary: Kenzou Tenma is a talented neurosurgeon working for the prestigious Eisler Memorial Hospital in mid-80s Germany. His beautiful fiancé, Eva Heinemann, is the daughter of the hospital's director. His career appears secure with the likelihood of promotion nearly guaranteed--that is, until Tenma begins to see some of the dark shadows looming around him. Tenma's operation on a Turkish laborer is switched to an inferior doctor at the last minute in favor of a famous singer, resulting in the laborer's death. When a similar conundrum arises mere days later, forcing Tenma to choose whether to operate on the Mayor (who had just arrived at the hospital due to a stroke) or on a young boy inflicted with a bullet wound (who has been in preparation for an hour), he makes a decision that will shake central Europe to its core for years to come.
The Good: Damn near everything
The Bad: Tenma has a few hammy line deliveries; sheer length may intimidate potential viewers
The Ugly: The allegedly beautiful Eva Heinemann
How did I come across this series?
More often than not, I go searching for anime for a good old serving of ludicrous escapism, and more down-to-earth, realistic series don't often do it for me. However, even today, the hype and praise surrounding Monster is damn near legendary, and so, one fateful day, I gave in and decided to see what all the fuss was about. And then you couldn't pay me to leave my room, because I was hooked--I had never been so sucked into a narrative before, or since. This series sits comfortably in my list of my 10 favorite anime of all time, and I don't think it'll ever get pushed out.
Just how did Monster accrue all of its hype?
I don't know where to begin talking about Monster's greatness, so let's begin with the visual side of things. Studio Madhouse put a lot of love and energy into every single frame, with detailed character artwork and delicate background colors and completely-insane detail to historical city locations and monuments. That nighttime shot of Prague's city square and castle illuminated with street lights? Pure magic. The only way you could have gotten a better shot is to have been there in person with a camera, and even then you'd have tough competition. Every episode, every shot, every single background image exemplifies Europe's beauty in a way that can only be outmatched by actually being there. The character art, too, is filled with detail and style, giving everyone (and I do mean everyone) a unique appearance and fully giving you the feeling that you are in a real world with real people, and that kind of atmosphere is absolutely critical for a series like this, where the horror is atmospheric. Oh, and of course, this being a Madhouse production, the animation is top-tier quality. Every movement is nuanced and lifelike and oftentimes intense. Truly a wonderful visual experience all-around.
Not to be outdone, the aural side of Monster shows off a few tricks of its own. The musical score is, of course, phenomenal and diverse, giving us extremely iconic tracks like super-intense "The Seeds of Time," the soothing "Angel's Hand," and the peaceful "It's a Long Way to Go"...and those are just background music! Though a length of 74 episodes will guarantee you hear each track at least twice, it's more exciting to hear again than it is boring. To go with the music, we have a spectacular Japanese voice cast and a pretty good English one. While the Japanese is nothing short of perfect, the English dub has a few shortcomings: Grimmer and Detective Lunge's voice actors don't quite fit, Dr. Gillen's just doesn't work at all, and Dr. Reichwein's is in perpetual jolly-old-man mode even when his life is in danger. Despite these missteps, if you want to watch Monster in English, then by all means, I still recommend you do so. Lastly, whoever was in charge of sound design and layering was a genius, weaving sound effects and music and voices together into a symphony that brings out the intensity of critical scenes to a fever pitch, nearly threatening to shatter your screen.
Now then, we move onto the characters, and of course, I have nothing but good things to say about all of them, including the characters you only meet for a single episode. Tenma serves as your goody-two-shoes protagonist, but he's forced to live life on the run and do some shady things to survive and enact his vengeance. Johan is pretty much the perfect charismatic villain, with motives that are kept secret from everyone and an allure that is almost supernatural, creating an army of devoted followers from all walks of life willing to throw their lives (or military might) at anyone who threatens his plan. Nina, much like Tenma, was living a normal life before Johan dug his claws into her affairs, and showcases a much more aggressive counterpoint to Tenma--both have embarked on their journey to kill Johan, but while Tenma is more reluctant and cares more about gathering information, Nina takes more risks and is more adamant about exacting her revenge. Add in a myriad of other characters like the relentless Detective Lunge, the mysterious journalist Grimmer, the decadent and pompous Eva, and you've got a veritable tapestry of character interactions and situations to keep you busy.
As far as the story goes...well, as you may have guessed by now, it's fantastic and well-worth the 74-episode trip it takes to reach the end. It all starts with the single thread presented in the Summary and splits off into a dozen different story lines, but they are all related to the main story in some way and never once come across as being confusing or disorienting; you will always know exactly where and when you are. And of course, nothing is ever as it seems, not even Johan. To assist the audience even further, the story moves at a slow, but deliberate, pace, ensuring that you'll never be lost in a whirlwind of scene changes. Some may say it moves too slowly, but I recommend not listening to those people. They are the same people who think incredible character-based "filler" episodes like "The Girl and the Soldier" shouldn't have been included, and shame on them for saying so.
Does this acclaimed series have any real faults?
Well, kinda. They're incredibly minor, but there are a few nits I can pick here and there. For one thing, as well-written as this series is, it gets a little comical in the later episodes when Tenma is receiving some incredible revelations about the plot, and all he can manage to say is just a repeat of what the other guy just said. That's just lame. Nina falls into this trap occasionally, as well, but Tenma is far worse about it.
The other thing I can point out isn't necessarily a flaw in and of itself, but the series' intimidating length can drive potential viewers away. In this day and age, people are busy and have stuff to do, and not everyone can devote a whopping 74 episodes to a single TV series, so that could lead to many people not even considering the possibility. And that's a damn shame.
So I guess that means the verdict is...
That aside, I could go on and on about how great Monster is and how brilliant the storylines and the characters and the artwork and the music and the animation and the settings are, but I have to keep myself in control without giving away too much. This is as close to perfection as an anime, or any medium, can get, and so I strongly urge everyone who hasn't seen Monster to change that as soon as possible. I cannot stress enough how essential it is that you do.
Final Score: 10 out of 10. Monster is a very rare example of an anime doing nearly everything perfectly, with immersive animation and deep themes that beg to be seen by anime fans of all stripes.