Wednesday, 9 July 2014

"Monster" by Naoki Urasawa

"When you're in the darkness, you only sink deeper into it. Keep the light shining." ~ Dr. Kenzo Tenma

Oh boy.

This is probably going to sound biased, but "Monster" is of my all-time favorite stories and a modern classic of the genre. I'm going to be upfront and say that this is probably my favorite work to come out of the manga (Japanese comic) genre and one of the best works to come out of Japan. If you want a fast-paced tale of good vs. evil on both an external and internal plain, and a plot that twists itself into probably the greatest ending of any Japanese work short of "Silence", then this is for you. No lies, it's excellent.

I told you, I'm biased.

Naoki Urasawa has established himself as one of the best modern storytellers in Japan, and it's a shame his work isn't more well known worldwide. His characters are frequently engaging as his good guys struggle to the right thing in an upside-down world, while his bad guys tend to choose the wrong thing and it ends up destroying themselves along the way. He tends to tackle evil in a more classic way—that is, its a choice and a temptation. It grips you and squeezes the life out of you until there's nothing left but a shell of who you once were. It's not a psychological defect, or a misunderstood personality trait, but an active and consuming force that can only be fought with the force of good.

Good, he portrays, is a lot more complicated and difficult than just being nice. There are hard choices to make and, by story's end the characters will end up having to deal with all of them.

This story is one of his earliest Seinin (adult) works and, in my opinion, remains his best.

Why? Well . . .

"And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy, "omitted". And they worshiped the dragon which gave power unto the beast and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is I like unto the beast?" "Who is able to make war with him?"" ~ The Revelation of St. John the Divine, 13:1-4 [quoted from the first scene of episode 1 of the anime series]

Monster is essentially about the battle of good and evil played out in the form of an adventure thriller. The story starts with an otherwise decent man named Dr. Kenzo Tenma making a grave mistake which ends up haunting him. His decision ends up spinning out into something far more vicious and evil than he intended as his life is radically changed and his world is flipped upside down. And it is up to him to set it right.

But this is only the beginning.

What makes a man do good or evil? What makes a real monster? Throughout Monster we meet a detective with a creepy computer-like logic system that ends with him being able to catch criminals but not able to see the obvious, and a man trying to live in solitude yet has a horrible beast living inside him ready to come out at any time. We have a hired hitman who believes he has found purpose for a higher cause despite unaware of who his boss even is, and an ex-con trying to turn his life around despite being faced with an overwhelming objective evil barreling down on him and his new calling.

It's very telling the way he portrays evil here as not something easily perceivable by sight. The bad guys are just as good at fitting into a crowd as the good guys, and is usually only through discernment and understanding that evil eventually comes to light. But, sometimes, it ends up coming too late.

The bad guys in Naoki Urasawa works are rarely demons walking around the streets with tattered clothes and scowls on their faces. No, they're typically much better at hiding the evil buried inside. After all, that is how evil succeeds, doesn't it? By trying to convince others that it doesn't exist it manages to slither by undetected. And there is evil (and good) hiding around every corner in this story. So much so that your head may end up spinning trying to keep up.

The cast of Monster is large, and not everyone makes it to the end, and they are all caught in the mystery of trying to learn who the monster really is which goes a bit beyond the villain's base identity. The issues of identity and choices loom large in this tale. Even minor characters will appear and reappear having to deal with choices they made, both for the positive and the negative, bringing it all to pass that every action we make in this world has consequences no matter how big or small.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is how the villain came into being from an experiment of creating the perfect human leader, and they succeeded. They made a leader who was crafty, charismatic, highly intelligent, and able to deceive anyone. A regular Anti-Christ. The interesting wrinkle in this scheme was that they succeeded so well that the villain repeatedly lets our hero seek him out and gives him full permission to put a stop to the evil. Only Tenma is allowed to put a stop to the evil by the villain's careful designs. Of course, Dr. Tenma can't just kill someone, even if they are committing extraordinarily vile acts, being that he is a doctor who specializes in saving people which he does in many ways throughout the story.

Then there's the ending.

Just, wow.

I know there are people who dislike it, but I just can't. There is no other way to end the story than with the final image we are given about the final state of the monster. It solidified this work as a classic, in my mind. It's too good.

Naoki Urasawa is very good at these swirling stories full of characters, histories, and a very heavy interest in the difference between good and evil. But none of his stories are quite as sharp as Monster is both in characterization and in plotting. Do yourself a favor and either watch the anime series for free (and legally) online or buy the North American release of the manga. Like, now. I promise you'll be hooked by the time Dr. Tenma has to make a decision in the operating room that has wide-ranging consequences. It never stops spinning from that moment.

This is a very hard story to talk about without spoiling all the wonderful twists and turns, so I won't even brush into them this time. So, no spoilers and a bit of a shorter article. Sorry, but I can't dissect this one now. Maybe down the road as a follow-up to this one.

As for availability, the first "Perfect Edition" of the manga (which contains two volumes packaged in one for a lower price) is being released on the 15th of July next week and I highly, highly, HIGHLY, recommend picking it up as well as the remaining 8 volumes when they release. It's criminal that this series is not a bestseller.

The full anime series is, unfortunately, not on DVD nor on Netflix which is a great shame as the American dubbing is particularly great and well worth experiencing, but it is available on Youtube to watch for free, as I said before, and is totally legal as it has been put up by the licensing company. I know there are some people out there with a stigma against comic books or graphic novels, but this story really should not be missed.

It is a classic in every sense of the term.
"How do you shoot a person who doesn't even exist?" ~ The villain [No spoilers here!]

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