by Naoki Urasawa; adaptation by Agnes Yoshida
published by Viz; $9.99 US
In Monster, Naoki Urasawa turns the usual expectation of good and evil on its head.
Dr. Tenma is a brilliant Japanese surgeon working in Germany. He’s a rising star due to his skills, and he’s engaged to the daughter of the chief of the hospital. She’s got his advancement all planned out so she can be the wife of a rich and powerful man. He’s got bigger concerns, though — his risky operation on an opera star brought the chief and the hospital plenty of favorable media attention, but he should have helped a construction worker who was brought in first.
These meaty concepts, dealing with the moral dangers of chasing fame and weighing the values of different lives, would be sufficient for a book of their own, but they’re only part of the prologue to the main story in this ambitious series. And that’s where the author’s switch occurs.
Burdened by the results of the earlier choice, even though it wasn’t his to make, Tenma ignores the chief’s direction to work on the mayor, choosing instead to save the life of a little boy, victim of a gunshot wound. The reader thinks “ah, that’s the moral of the story” and settles in for a comfortable read, reaffirming standard ethics.
However, Tenma’s decision ruins his life, and his morals are cold comfort as everything he thought he could rely on is abruptly stripped away from him. Worst yet, he might have been wrong. Not all little boys are innocent. Some are monsters that would have been better off left to die.
The clear, quietly shaded art presents the story directly, never getting in the way of the horrors it subtly portrays. The fiance’s cruel rejection and Tenma’s crushed soul, to name only two examples, are simply shown in single panels that sum up all of the emotional weight of the powerful moments. It’s a deceptively easy read.
With a series of unsolved murders and a bulldog investigator, the material is as exciting as an action movie, but with an added element of thought-provoking ethical debate. Doctors make life-or-death decisions regularly as part of their jobs, but few (at least in this story) are willing to confront what that actually means. A series of medical annotations of the series have been posted.