As consumers of a lowbrow entertainment medium, we manga readers sometimes struggle to justify our pastime when it is threatened by the sharp, knife-edged disapproving scowls of guardians of taste. In our efforts to promote manga's literary credentials, one of the titles which keeps coming up is Naoki Urasawa's Monster.
Urasawa is a prominent key figure in the manga industry and his work is diverse as befits a man ascribed with far-ranging vision, encompassing everything from sports (Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl) to sci-fi (Pluto) by way of expansive globe-trotting archaeological adventure (Master Keaton) and intimate close-in domestic drama (Happy!). Monster was Urasawa's turn at a psychological suspense thriller and audiences found it gripping, running from 1994 to 2001 in Big Comic Original magazine and across 18 tankobons of collected editions, with an unusually long 74-episode anime adaptation running from 2004-5, a six-cour testament to the strength of the name. Urasawa has a host of trophies clattering and jangling around him like corks swinging from an Australian's hat, including three separate bars of the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award, one of them for Monster itself. He isn't just a local hero either - over his career Urasawa has resounded with international acclaim, snagging three French comics prizes and also having been granted a coveted Eisner twice for his 20th Century Boys, which has also been adapted as a live-action film trilogy. That worldwide appeal is found in Monster too - while a movie version from New Line Cinema has languished in Development Hell for years, there's active talk about Guillermo del Toro helming an adaption of Monster as a television drama on the HBO network.
Viz Media do have some of that light reflected onto them by holding the manga license. They have previously released Monster in single editions and they also brought over the anime for television broadcast in America, although the DVD version failed with just one volume released. Despite this blip, though, Monster's manga continued strongly - we were very impressed by the manga's British debut back in 2006, and given its pedigree the series is being re-released in a 2-in-1 omnibus format, the Perfect Edition, now available in bookshops today via the Viz Signature imprint. Has a premium re-release truly unshackled the monster in all its magnificent macabre majesty?
Kenzo Tenma is a young but brilliant Japanese surgical prodigy. He is currently working in a hospital in 1980s West Germany, having initially only travelled to Europe for a short residency but ending up settling there after his talents were recognised. Tenma is one of the best neurosurgeons in the business, but for all the lives he's saved and illnesses he's cured Tenma himself is afflicted with a terrible and terminal debilitating disease - a conscience. Still operating under the pitiful delusion that people become medics in order to heal the sick and aid the needy, he is completely unprepared to negotiate the maze of office politics, bureaucratic factions and desktop empires that are part and parcel of any bloated and salaried institution like a health service. Tenma is shamelessly exploited by his hospital director, who plagiarises Tenma's papers and even takes the credit for high-profile operations as "head of the surgical team" when it is Tenma and the other staff who actually perform the procedures.
Tenma's conscience is a chronic condition, however, and he is growing increasingly uncomfortable with being ordered to operate on famous patients who will give renown to the hospital instead of the needier ordinary people who are dying on gurneys while this is happening. Unfortunately for Tenma, he chooses the exact worst day to stand on his principles, refusing to stop treating a young boy shot in the head during a brutal slaying of his family when the hospital demands he halt and switch over to the mayor (who'll also be voting on a raise in the hospital's funding next month) brought in afterwards. No good deed should go unpunished, though, and while Tenma saves the boy Johan Liebert, extracting the bullet in an extremely complex operation that requires all of his incredible surgical skill - clearly something only he could have done - the mayor dies under the knife of a less competent surgeon, and with that Tenma's career is over. The director shuts Tenma out of the neurology department, his fiancé - a selfish gold-digger who only cares for her partner's status - throws his engagement ring in his face, and Tenma's reduced to dispensing pills in the outpatient ward. Still, at least Johan was saved, and that's what counts, far more than money and status. It may be small consolation, but it's enough for Tenma.
Then one day, Johan disappears from his hospital bed. All around Tenma, people start dying, a wake of bloody murder that churns behind his path for a decade following that fateful night in A&E. Truly, your sins will find you out, even the unwitting ones made with the best intentions. Tenma thought that he was helping the helpless, but in saving that boy's life did he only unlock the cage of a monster?
These new books are appealing and befitting of the premium presentation. An omnibus format is a good idea for a thriller like Monster, giving us a bit extra to complete a story arc and not frustrating us with constant cliffhangers which would wear you down over eighteen volumes. They have sturdy covers with a curiosity-provoking oblique design, thick paper stock and an atmospheric effect on the title pages where faces loom out of the mist of an opaque wax sheet like a faint and fading light in darkness, all of which ensures that the sense of mystery is being set before you've even started reading, and just holding each volume becomes part of the experience. This mystery is also enhanced because the artwork also does justice to the Signature label. Urasawa has a superb level of detail in his work, with authentic and realistic backgrounds whether it be the ornament-filled corridors of stately homes or displays of brain surgery in action which speak of good research and a skilled hand. The manga has a great sense of place, and that engages your sense of immersion so that you feel as though you are exploring hidden corners of a darkening world as the trail for the killer leads you down strange paths.
Characters are also wonderfully expressive, something that comes out with the larger dimensions of the book. Urasawa gets a fair amount of ribbing for giving his characters ginormous schnozzles, but I really don't see it myself - it only looks weird if you literally read nothing other than manga, where noses are so miniscule they're barely a speck of ink. I don't find it at all distracting and I think that it's actually more fitting given the level of detail in the background art, amongst which the more cartoony appearance of traditional "big eyes, small mouths" manga design would look like an intrusion. The characters' art also really brings out their personalities - Tenma's ex-fiancé Eva in particular is a revelation, a splendidly despicable two-faced sow who can mould herself into a mask of pleasantness, but when a shadow passes across her it scrapes out that soft infill to reveal the sunken, bony harpy underneath. Another interesting design is found in Inspector Lunge, the implacable detective pursuing the connections of the murders surrounding Tenma - his long narrow face and slight tip of his head given him the image of a bird of prey sizing up a meal, and he has a tic as his fingers twitch and knuckles click while he "types into his mental floppy disk" to summon perfect eidetic memories of total recall. The movement is intriguing and creepily threatening, reminding me of a spider's skittering pedipalps.
A "suspense thriller" must have suspense and thrills, though, and can the storyline provide it? This must be a bit more qualified. A lot of the dilemmas that confront Tenma, right back to the first decision that sets the whole story in motion, are a little ridiculous in how black-and-white they are, and his ministering-angel presence sometimes becomes silly in its schmaltz as outright serial killers whisper admiringly "you're a true doctor" after him. Characters have a tendency to exposit to empty rooms and the tension of Tenma's first meeting with Johan after the latter's disappearance is sapped by a dozen pages of explaining whodunits while a victim just stands there being held up. Tenma tends to get very clear and easy directions to the next person he needs to pump for information, and I'm also wary of the twist revealed to us at the end of volume two - as Tenma's moral conflict is whether or not a man who dedicated himself to saving lives has the will to kill, I really hope that it isn't going to be giving him a cop-out easy way out of the crisis. Admittedly though it's early days yet and there's still a long way to go before the story's done - it wouldn't be right to condemn it yet, as it might not be as simple as it first seems.
At first, it's not quite clear why Monster is even set in Germany, for any reason other than background colour. You might think that it even works against the premise - even in this modern age of mass immigration Japanese doctors in Europe aren't exactly ten-a-penny and it seems implausible that Tenma could vanish into the crowd and elude the police. You do need to give things some time to mature, however, as the setting does begin to have a proper impact on the plot in the second volume as the trail gets snagged on the untidy ruins of the borders and unresolved discontent of post-Reunification 1990s Germany which is actually quite fascinating. Not all of these context-appropriate developments are positive, though. The first volume has a high-body count but is still a relatively grounded thriller... but in the second volume the plot can only be described as taking complete leave of its senses, as we pursue the killer and suddenly trip up into and get swamped by an imbroglio of genocidal Neo-Nazi conspiracies (it's set in Germany, of course there are Nazis, why wouldn't there be?), midget pimps, mafia assassins with hearts of gold and Soviet super-soldier breeding programmes. This all suddenly blows up in the face of Kenzo Tenma, Action Surgeon, that cool customer who can sew your brain up in the back room of a rural clinic, train in combat with a French Foreign Legionnaire and bounce off car crashes with only cosmetic bruising while he escorts a young child he's rescued from abusive parents around Central Europe like they're the Lone Wolf & flippin' Cub. So yeah, it starts getting pretty dumb.
This mustn't be seen as a universal dismissal, though, because a lot of Monster still works well. Does it really matter so much if some of the events in a thriller seem unrealistic? Excitement is spiced with a dash of fantasy - James Bond movies have featured less gritty espionage and more submarine bases and laser battles but it doesn't seem to have done him much harm. Individual scenes can be quite powerful, such as the ratcheting fear when Tenma realises he's gotten into a car with corrupt police hitmen. Action sequences are rendered clearly with a lot of variety in their movement, the aforementioned good background art augments the moody atmosphere in dramatic scenes, and scenes are photographed with a cinematic quality which makes its appeal to HBO obvious. As much as there are some problems with the setting, in others there are significant advantages - it's great to be able to look back on an era which really wasn't so long ago at all but is nonetheless a world away from what we have today - investigating old newspaper reports involves literally days trawling through archive binders instead of seconds in a Google search, and when someone cuts the house's phone line this is a genuine danger of a shadowy evil lurking outside that can't be solved by just whipping out your smartphone. This sense of physicality definitely does make the adventure a lot more involved than the clinical computer-clicking of more modern mysteries.
So, is Monster literature? No, I can't say that it is. Its plot is far too outré for our adjudicators of taste to permit it to make naturalistic comments about ourselves, and the violence would probably give them a fit of the vapours. As much as some of the outright histrionic events that take place really strain your credulity though, melodrama can be powerful and compelling in its grand theatrical confidence if not its profound affecting depth. Monster gives us a bravura performance of some passion and the question of what created Johan lying far beyond the experience of any characters shown here is still one that I'm interested in seeing answered.