Review of Monster (2004)

Moving picture, 30 hours

A Japanese neurosurgeon named Tenma, doing brilliant work in West Germany, resolves to treat all patients fairly. Instead of saving a potential benefactor, Tenma operates on a young boy who is brought to the hospital slightly earlier, with a gunshot wound to the head and an incoherent twin sister. Tenma’s career appears to be sunk but his disapproving boss is murdered. He is promoted in spite of his expectations, falling under some suspicion. The twins disappear.

Nine years later, the Soviet Union has collapsed and Germany is unified, but much of Europe is still haunted by secret police organizations and the grating aftermath of Soviet corruption and collaboration. The saved boy returns and kills Tenma’s latest patient, a gangster. Suspected again, Tenma trails the murderer through the former Soviet bloc, uncovering peculiar picture books in a web stretched between neo-Nazi criminal conspiracies and old ambitions to forge human minds in any shape the state desires.

An existential criminal drama and suspense thriller. Realistic enough to have been perfectly feasible as a live-action production, it is roughly the kind of bourgeois product recommended by the editors in Kinsella’s Adult Manga (2000).

Monster echoes both Tezuka’s Black Jack and an anecdote about Sigmund Freud, wherein Freud traces a fear to one specific picture book his patient had seen in childhood. This series is an epic, cohesive across 74 episodes, sprawling all the way from grand institutional massacres to cute nostalgic simplicities like the awesome restorative power of eating together. The real villain seems to be the illusory plasticity of our personalities, not the creeps who exploit it. Occasional Übermensch melodrama drags its down, but there is always some new side story waiting to refresh the whole. The character design based on the original comic is generally excellent, with just a couple of goofy exceptions, and the setting is meticulously researched, down to news in local languages that seem to make at least as much sense as renditions of English usually do in Japanese animation.

References here: Serenity (2005), Pluto (2023).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series