Monster

3 out of 5

Directed by: Masayuki Kojima

covers dubbed version of series

Okay, I’m ready.  Let’s talk about Monster.

Monster is a landmark achievement in narrative.  An incredibly complex tapestry of interweaving narratives, stretched across in-story generations, lain across 74 episodes (fairly strictly following the manga, of course) with a patience only achievable by having the full story mapped out from the start.  All of those narratives – big and small, multi-episode or singular – are fascinating, even if you might not remember the featured characters a few episodes later; while they’re on screen, you’re wrapped up on their story.  And the consistency of this telling is admirable, the point (or possible points) of what we’re shown / told massaged into every single interaction.

For some similar reasons, though, Monster is utter bullshit.  It takes entirely too long to tell its overly complicated story, and sidesteps to characters who really don’t matter in the overall picture beyond a ‘gee that’s neat’ connection.  It makes its mission statement(s?) so often that by the time you get around to the conclusion, you’ve already asked the dreaded That’s It? question several times over.  Because the anime is supposedly very true to its source manga, we’ll suppose the same issues are apparent there; that being said, transposing this to a literary format may make the awkward time-jumping structure seem a bit more natural, and we wouldn’t have to suffer the god-awful cheesiness of the voice acting, or perhaps the dialogue’s fluffiness would be easier to swallow in a world of thought bubbles.

Monster mainly concerns the relationship of a doctor to a particular patient: Johan.  Doctor Tenma is an up-and-coming neurosurgeon who makes the wrong political decision to operate on a brain-damaged child instead of a big money donor.  This decision initially costs him his career… and then seemingly more, as Tenma becomes the suspect in an escalating series of murders, that may, as he discovers, be tied to the child whose life he saved.  In order to clear his name, he must find out more about this child, which takes him from country to country, and across years, the rabbit hole concerning this one kid’s past going deeper and deeper.

Sound pretty interesting?  It is.  Monster is unique in that it rarely steps in to fantasy (beyond, I suppose, the machinations of Johan); most episodes are talking heads.  And yet it can be incredibly riveting, especially in its mid-stretch, as Tenma finds himself front and center in Some New Issue which is somehow tied to his pursuits.  Each kernel of knowledge thus comes with some new conflict, which in turn sets our fugitive on the run once more.  The animation services this well: character designs (again, taken from the source) are unique, with body language well-matched to each personality; you know Tenma by how he carries himself, same with Nina – another primary character – and the various other names you’ll come to recognize.  When action does arise, it’s well choreographed or slow-moed to make it particularly exciting, even if it is awfully manipulative with not showing something until the next episode.

…Does it sound potentially confusing?  That it also is, especially given how often story elements repeat.  This is, I’d say, the main downfall of the story.  Johan’s (essentially) biography – Tenma tracks him over several years, allowing Johan to grow to adulthood – is fascinating, but it’s also riddled with super villain plotting that we have to keep learning about second hand through Tenma’s research.  While anchoring the story to Tenma, whose goodness is what’s at stake the entire time, makes narrative sense, it also means that we have to deal with a good chunk of things through flashbacks.  This quickly leads into the structure’s secondary hitch, which is the video-game syndrome of ‘okay, you pushed this button, now you have to go over here and push another one.’  In Monster’s case, no one person has anything close to the complete story, so the entire narrative could be said to be Tenma seeking out someone to give him one piece of a flashback, which inevitably leads to one more person with another piece, so on and so on for seventy something episodes.  This is diverted often enough by Johan’s modern-day machinations, but it doesn’t excuse the very visibly repetitive nature of the quest.

Nor does it add much to what I think is supposed to be some deep, philosophical shit about the nature of morality but just sort of gets as far as “what makes us who we are?” open-endedness and then beats that into our heads with a god damned hammer at every possible possibility.  When we can move past pretending like there’s some mystery to solve and just deal with the fall-out of what ‘created’ Johan, and how others have dealt with that, again, it’s quite driving, and Tenma can switch over to just stopping the ‘monster’ instead of necessarily trying to understand him.  But in the series’ final stretch we go back to explanations and it really drags things down, beating our somewhat healing hammer-beaten heads once more.

This repetition and obviousness is further not helped by some horrible American voice casting, and some of the most unnaturally cheesy dialogue I’ve heard in forever.  I expect a certain amount of pantomime in anime – saying things out loud, or an oddly emphasized phrasing.  This is a cultural difference in writing as well as one of the potential woes of dubbing.  However, Monster is definitely a step beyond.  The actors that have more fleshed out roles get the better dialogue and can deliver on their performances: Liam O’brien as Tenma, Karen Strassman as Nina, Richard Epcar as Inspector Lunge – the guy mainly burning a torch for a guilty Tenma – and Laura Bailey as Dieter – a kid that ends up following Tenma about for part of his travels – all fare pretty well, but when the “emotional” stakes are raised and the script takes a plunge into self-help territory, it becomes dreadfully eye-rolling, and then eye-gouging when the habit of repeating key phrases becomes over-used.  The remaining children are particularly dumb to listen to, all uniformly written like they only learned how to speak yesterday, but most frustratingly: Keith Silverstein is entirely miscast as Johan, or was directed to use the wrong type of voice.  Johan is meant to have the potential to convince anyone to do anything, as well as to be slightly sexually ambiguous at times, and thus he can’t have too manly of a voice.  But the ‘seductive’ tone used is… hard to describe.  But it’s not seductive.  It’s almost, unfortunately, funny, for how unnatural it sounds.  Johan is more of a spectre for most of the story, so we don’t actually hear him speak too often, but I know that I was really hoping to hear a voice much more convincing of the what the character was capable.

Grievances aired?  Okay.  Look: Monster is still an accomplishment, and still worth watching.  All of its flaws – the repetition, the lack of any really meaty subtext once the context is offered, the occasionally grating voice acting – almost edge it into an appropriate surreal, dream-like representation of its story.  Except that doesn’t always justify things, especially when it goes into its final quarter, during which the unfortunate lack of story depth (directly regarding the ‘meaning’ of things) creates something of a sinkhole of dwindling expectations around which you circle until the final episode.  But that does leave you 50 or so episodes to build up an affinity for the style, and, admittedly, to sort of expect that it’s not going to have much else to reveal for that last stretch.

It’s quite unusual for an anime (or manga) for how straight-forward it is in terms of content, meaning no overt sexualization, no over-violence or action, and the pay-off for its plodding runtime is that it can afford to go off on these one-off tangents that end up being fascinating in their own right.  Once you’ve watched it all, read this.  The story, presented chronologically – while still a bit unnecessarily complex – is quite amazing, and can add to the appreciation of how the manga told that tale, and thus how the anime re-told it.

There are many things I may have done differently with the same material, but Monster stands as a unique – give that term a positive connotation here – experience, worth the overall time investment, despite my bitching about it.