Monster originally ran from 1994-2001 in Japan, and Viz serialized it in English from 2006-2008. Those volumes, out of print, have been in demand for two reasons. First, author Naoki Urasawa is now better known in the US, winning a couple of Eisner Awards for 20th Century Boys and gathering a great deal of critical praise for Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. Plus, Monster may become an HBO TV series.
So Viz has done the smart thing. They’re reprinting Monster in an upscale edition. The books are larger, matching the size of his other works in English; they have remastered pages and a new translation; and the volumes include color pages. Each contains the equivalent of two of the previous books, making for bigger reading chunks. They’re lovely.
The story is as involving as ever. Dr. Tenma is a promising young surgeon in Germany with a career on the rise. He’s also engaged to the daughter of the hospital director, who encourages him to think of his soon-to-improve position, because she likes the status. As part of playing the game, he’s asked to give up his research, work that might save lives, so he can ghost-write papers to make the director look better.
An early scene sums up the couple’s relationship, as Tenma tries to rationalize away his guilt at participating, unknowingly, in hospital politics, leading to the death of a poor man so a famous one could be saved, by saying, “I was following the director’s orders”. His fiancee responds, bluntly, “Some lives are worth more than others,” a chilling statement that haunts him.
That’s one reason, when ordered to leave a challenging operation on a young boy to save the life of a mayor whose funding is important to the hospital, he refuses — which ends up ruining his life. His promotion is rescinded, and his fiancee leaves him because his career has ended. However, nine years later, things have turned around for him, after the unexpected death of the director who blocked him.
He soon finds out why. The boy he saved turns out to be a serial killer. Tenma’s choice, while appearing morally preferable, has resulted in a number of other deaths. He gives up his work to search for this anonymous killer, trying to prevent more murders. He travels across Germany, looking for the now-young man and his twin sister. He wants to stop him to make up for saving the monster years ago.
Urasawa’s work is cinematic in its pacing, with excellent linework establishing the strong characters. His expressions of his characters are particularly revealing. Monster isn’t my favorite of his work — that would be Pluto, which is more tightly developed and with themes that resonate more with me. Monster is more of a thriller, and it spins out long for my taste, with some exaggerated plot developments. It’s not as thoughtful, but it’s more adrenaline-paced. Still, it’s worth a read.
I also have qualms with the base premise. Tenma does the right thing, and his life is ruined for it. I suppose the message is that no one can predict who’s going to turn out to be a psychopath, but it’s a bit random for my taste, attesting to an uncaring universe. Going back to the fiancee’s statement, the reader can’t help but think that Tenma’s life, with his ability to save others, IS worth more than that of Johan’s, since all he’s done is murder the undeserved. I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with her, though, since that privileged attitude is also what allows murderers to kill others.
Then again, the entire premise of a high-level doctor is that he can save lives, playing God by holding other’s fates in his hands. It’s certainly thought-provoking. Let’s see how I feel once I re-read the remaining reprints.
By book 2, Tenma is on the run. His asking questions about the various murders has tagged him as a suspect, and his Japanese identity in Germany makes him stand out. Johan is toying with him while Tenma tries to piece together what happened and where he was going, including investigating his childhood in an East German orphanage.
It’s fascinating to see how quickly everything Tenma valued, everything that made up his self-identity, can be replaced when he becomes a lone vigilante. He wanders, meeting a child whose most desired wish is simply a soccer ball and a country doctor trying to do what he can for the village patients. He’s not the only one after Johan; a white-supremacist organization is also looking for him to be the next Hitler.
Meanwhile, a police inspector who has sacrificed everything else in his life to solving murderers is on his trail, egged on by Tenma’s now-dissolute ex-fiancee. It’s rather like a 70s action show, with the big premise — Tenma hunts a murderer — allowing for smaller stories within the larger plot. (The publisher provided a review copy.)