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Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Tenma's pursuit of "monster" Johan continues. He consults a criminal psychologist in order to winnow out the truth about the messages that Johan has been leaving, only to be confronted with the possibility that Johan is but another aspect of himself. In the meantime one of the policemen who killed Anna's family is living in domestic bliss. Troubled by the way he was manipulated, he begins to investigate, bringing about a reckoning with both Johan and Anna. And inspector Lunge fashions a cunning trap to ensnare the unsuspecting Tenma...
There's a confluence of artistry, insight, narrative, and relevance wherein dwell those things that deserve the title "classic" (deserve it, but don't necessarily ever earn it; only time, chance, and the forces of creative entropy can ever truly bestow that honor upon anything). Standing smack in the middle of that crossroads is Naoki Urasawa's Monster.
Of course, Monster owes a debt to true classics of the past, particularly the "wrongly accused man on the run" films of original Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock (going so far—in volume 2—as to mimic, scene for scene, a sequence from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps). But make no mistake, Monster is a true original. What else do you call a manga that builds its story around questions of morality (the value of a human life and the existence of pure evil) via a parade of insoluble moral dilemmas?
Urasawa orchestrates his suspense like a master musician, effortlessly maintaining the delicate balance of deliberate misinformation and explicit delineation of the dangers facing protagonists that only the finest suspense thrillers ever achieve. His world of dark conspiracy, dark shadows and even darker hearts is populated by a cast of full-blooded, meticulously realized characters who live, breathe, love, hate, and die just like us. And for all of their ugly desires, destructive ambitions, and moral compromise, they are all redeemable, perhaps sympathetic, even good, and definitely human; never is the focus so tightly on the dark clouds of human evil, death, and despair that the silver lining of hope, dignity, and compassion is ignored.
That said, this volume isn't one of the better volumes thus far in the series. To be sure, it is expertly crafted—Urasawa continues to peel away the layers of mystery surrounding Johan, and Anna gets yet another chance to be her strong, beautiful self—but this volume, more so than volumes past, feels as if it is spinning its wheels a little. For all of the moral complexity of the Anna and Lunge chapters and the is-he-or-isn't-he-crazy mind tricks of the first two chapters, this volume simply feels slighter and less substantial than it should. Johan casts his long shadow over all of the proceedings, but is more a simple specter than a solid presence; the permeating sense of creeping evil is missing; and there are no shocking revelations that alter the narrative landscape like those preceding this volume. Of course, if the first four volumes are any indication, none of this is likely to continue for long, and even when at an idle or tying up loose ends, Monster still outperforms the vast majority of manga on the market.
Urasawa's artistic craft is performed to something approaching an invisible perfection. There is nothing showy or superfluous about his drawing, only exactly what is needed to evoke the emotions and establish the atmosphere he desires. His characters wear their personalities on their faces, communicating changes in their outlooks, psychology, inner thoughts and emotions with shifts in expression that range from barely perceptible to masks of rage, hate and fear. Settings are omnipresent, finely detailed and superbly atmospheric. Panels are laid out with an eye towards maximum continuity and clarity, moving the eye with such ease that it is easy to miss how much effort is poured into each and every panel of each and every page: the pastoral beauty of the countryside, the replication of historical architecture, the research into the workings of weapons.
Monster is another in Viz's Signature line of more adult-oriented manga. The only real differences in terms of quality from Viz's standard graphic novels is the addition of a glossy color "next volume" page in the back (very stylish!) and the fact that all sound effects are left in Japanese with a translation index in the back. There are no other extras included.
Even at its weakest, Monster is still great storytelling. This volume may not be as shocking and complex as the first two or as psychologically cruel and historically resonant as the fourth, but that doesn't mean that it isn't damn good.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A-
+ Written and drawn with the same impeccable craft as previous installments.
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