Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Johan's trail leads Nina and Tenma to Frankfurt, where a group of neo-Nazi extremists led by mad gangster The Baby are planning an apocalyptic act of arson to welcome the young man they believe to be their new Hitler. There the pair learns a disturbing new facet of their mutual quarry's mental state. Afterwards both head back underground, Nina to track down the men who murdered her foster parents and Tenma to search for Johan, pursued by his fallen ex-fiancé Eva and the increasingly obsessive Inspector Lunge. While renting out his medical expertise to a wounded gangster, Tenma catches wind that Johan is in Munich. In Munich a group of seemingly unrelated people—a gentle psychologist, a disgraced ex-alcoholic PI, a business magnate, and a pair of college students—navigate their lives, unaware that they are all caught up in the shrinking web of an invisible monster's long-gestating stratagem.
One arc ends, another begins and Naoki Urasawa's habit of separating the good stuff with stories about one-off characters ossifies as this adaptation of his disturbing fairy tale travels another fifteen episodes down the convoluted path into the heart of darkness.
Episode sixteen picks up where Viz's orphaned Monster box set left off: with Nina imprisoned, Tenma in the hands of sadistic reactionaries, and Frankfurt on the brink of a genocidal conflagration. In other words it's crackling. Tenma's sojourn in Frankfurt is tightly wound, deliberately executed suspense of a high order—exactly Monster's stock-in-trade. It's also ultimately of little consequence. A chilling glimpse of child-Johan, emerging from the wastes of communist Europe like a harbinger of its collapse, and a clue to what may have driven him to exhort his sister to kill him are the extent of the arc's contributions to the larger plot. Of course, when you're sweating through a scenic confrontation with an effete psychopath or following Nina through a mansion prison suddenly transformed into a house of corpses, to say nothing of thundering along with Tenma as he chases fires and arsonists through the grimy back-streets of Germany on his way to a poignantly underplayed reunion, well, it's hard to care too much about the place of it all in the grand scheme of things.
As is Monster's wont after scorching its audience, the series then proceeds into a series of standalone tales, revisiting supporting characters and watching Tenma play super-surgeon to strangers. Such stories could be characterized as filler—if they weren't so often cold, dark gems in their own right. Urasawa has an uncanny knack for digging deep into throwaway characters, building terse little character studies around people like the elderly couple that Tenma hitches a ride with, Tenma's ex-classmate the devoted criminal psychologist, Nina's boss the movie-loving restaurateur, and the corrupt cop who has found a reason to live in his adopted family. Each is brimming with cutting psychological insight, cruel twists of fate, and deep sympathy for the conflicted, often contradictory people at its core.
They also skillfully keep the series' moral obsessions—with the nature of evil and the inner effects of murder—and large supporting cast in play. And they aren't as disconnected from the ongoing plot as they'd have you believe. It's Urasawa's sneaky genius to keep us forever guessing as to what is and isn't connected to Johan. Bit players turn out to be recurrent villains, seemingly solid leads are revealed to be dead-end traps, and revelations that rewrite what we think we know spring from the most innocuous of set-ups. Don't be fooled: some of Monster's best episodes are its most isolated. The episodes featuring Lunge and Eva in particular are little masterworks of tricky plotting wedded with wicked insights.
The main plot kick-starts itself in Munich, where Monster once again establishes a new dramatis personae and, curiously enough, also abandons Tenma altogether. The new arc is nearly pure film noir mystery at this point, complete with duplicitous prostitutes, heartless hitmen, and a hard-boiled detective with a daunting roster of personal problems. It's a fine opportunity to enjoy one of Monster's less celebrated joys: namely trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Urasawa delights in revealing just enough of Johan's machinations to make the suspense excutiating before pulling the rug out from under us, proving all of our assumptions wrong and leaving us clawing for the truth. The rascal.
The sleuthing is ultimately a sideshow though. Monster is a thriller at heart, and thrill it does. Munich is the closest we've been allowed to Johan, and the proximity is terrifying, poisoning every development with fatal potentialities. Standout sequences include a study in Hitchockian suspense involving a rotund counselor and a very shady patient, and Richard's confrontation with Johan, which is so awful as to be unwatchable—in a good way.
Masayuki Kojima and his team at Mad House continue to take faithfulness to neurotic extremes. Each episode covers precisely two manga chapters, using them basically as storyboards. Kojima's meticulous recreation of Urasawa's carefully rendered settings, idiosyncratic designs, and cinematic editing is duly impressive, but also leaves the series open to accusations of being an act of mimicry rather than a true adaptation. The accusations aren't unjustified. The series can feel rather moribund; so confined by its fidelity that it never innovates or takes chances—at least not chances that Urasawa didn't take first. And it's certainly a little too pokey for its own good. One wonders what might have been had Kenji Kamiyama, a director with cinematic sensibilities akin to Urasawa's own, been in charge, or better yet (and I salivate at the very thought), a stone-cold auteur like Hideaki Anno.
At any rate, Kojima delivers the next best thing: a faithful recreation of the original, with all of the added value that color, motion and sound can bring to bear. You need only watch him choreographing Richard's big realization to the classical side of Kuniaki Haishima's creepy, layered score to appreciate his journeyman skills. Or taste the Cold War paranoia that taints his close-ups, or smell the fear as he pans and tracks into black spaces that may or may not house unspeakable evils. His craft may not be brilliant, but it's craft enough.
These episodes lack some of the mythic resonance of the first fifteen, but that isn't Kojima's fault. It's the inevitable result of the break that the series takes between Frankfurt and Munich, particularly during the genuinely disposible hitchhiking and waitressing episodes, and of the loss of the fairy-tale simplicity of its opening set-up. Not that a little loss of mythic punch, or the addition of some plodding plot, stops the show from being brilliant and utterly unique. If you are in the least fed up with the layabout clones that smother the market, you owe it to yourself to check Monster out.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ As intelligent, punishingly suspenseful, and morally relevant as ever; plenty of terrifying Johan goodness.
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