Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Finally caught up with his former patient Johan, Tenma buys a high-performance sniper rifle with every intent of putting a bullet through the young monster. His friends Drs. Gillen and Reichwein are trying their best to stop him, and Inspector Lunge is hot on his trail, still convinced that Johan and Tenma are one and the same. Even worse, Johan is fully aware of his intention, and almost seems to be welcoming his murderous intentions. Meanwhile Nina is attempting to puzzle together Johan's actions to entrap him herself, and comes across a mysterious Czech picture book that may be the door to her past... and Johan's. Johan, having wormed his way into the graces of powerful financier Schuwald, attends a book-donating ceremony with the old man, drawing every other player in his little puppet-play to him like moths to flame.
It's been said before, but even at its worst, Monster is better than a goodly portion of all manga. Even so, there's no denying that for a few volumes Monster was feeling like it had stretched on too long and was running out of steam. That sensation has persisted even to this point, with the inclusion of a few too many of those short-story tales of Tenma helping various strangers. Even as Johan left the realm of nebulous evil force to become a very human and very scary flesh-and-blood monster, that niggling feeling persisted. The end of volume nine, however, washes that feeling so completely away it is as if it never existed in the first place.
Richard's investigation in the preceding volumes began to draw together various seemingly unrelated short plotlines, and here they all converge with deadly force as the mystery of Johan is peeled back one tiny layer at a time and Tenma draws ever closer to the murderous act that will forever stain his soul. The breadth and black, cold depths of Johan's evil are simply breathtaking—and bone-chilling. He's no less a compelling, darkly fascinating force now that his humanity is slowly being revealed. If anything he's even more so than before; even his aura of supernatural menace is still in full force. Human his origin may be, but he's still "the monster" down to his empty soul and burning gaze. The children's book, with its cryptic fairy-tale clues as to his nature and origin, only adds to that mystique.
Meanwhile Tenma's quest to exterminate Johan keeps the complex moral quality of the manga thriving. His determination and desperation are tangible, and the battle he fights with himself, with his nobler instincts is as—if not more—thrilling than any action or evil machination is. It's a fairly simple thing to make an audience want to see the trigger pulled on someone. Heck, many series do it unintentionally. But to make the audience scream with every fiber of their being for a character not to pull the trigger is a rare and difficult feat indeed. And to do that while the audience knows full well that he must is simply amazing. The moment Tenma has Johan in his sights is as tense as anything Hitchcock ever managed, but with a moral component and psychological realism that is unique to Monster.
Even those chapters, and their characters, that had felt unrelated to the greater picture are written with care and eventually drawn together by Johan's grand plan. The ways that the lives of Monster veterans like Lunge, Dieter, and Dr. Gillen intersect with those of newer characters like Karl, Lotte and Schuwald is fascinating in its own right, but what is truly impressive is Naoki Urasawa's ability to create such complex, involving characters in so little time. The aching pain of frumpy Lotte's crush on Karl, and the wrenching power of her unburdening on Nina are wholly unexpected given the short time since she was introduced. Nina, for her part, is every bit as strong, decent and alluring as she ever was.
Urasawa's art has an uncanny cinematic quality to it. He uses his rectangular panels to recreate all manner of cinematic techniques, from simple things like zooms and slow motion to incredibly complex things like time-expansion editing. His choice and timing of cinematic flourishes is impeccable, especially a pair of scenes involving Johan—one where his humanity bursts through, and the other where he finally lets the inner monster loose in all its terrifying glory. Urasawa's art is high-detail and very realistic, his characters tending towards something more closely resembling real people than is the anime norm, and his backgrounds being intricate and evocative. Sinister energy literally bleeds from every page of this manga, via atmosphere and suggestion alone without the help of a single supernatural element.
This series has been given solid treatment from Viz thus far. The spare covers capture the allure of the series well, the paper and print quality are good, and the "children's book" passage is even printed in an aged-looking light brown. Sound effects are left intact in the artwork, with a glossary of translations at the back of the book. The cryptic glossy black-and-red next-volume preview at the end of each volume continues to be a nice touch.
These two volumes tie up the Schuwald arc, drawing everything—Tenma's vow, Johan's schemes, and nearly every secondary character and plotline—into one masterfully orchestrated climax of nearly apocalyptic proportions. And then, just when it couldn't possibly get better, the volume ends on a cliffhanger so intriguing that the next volume practically screams to be read immediately. And we're only halfway through.
Overall : A
Story : A
Art : A
+ Builds to a climax that showcases an exhilarating mastery of the storytelling craft.
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