It's hard to describe Monster. Part evil fairy tale, part spy thriller, part moral study, and all dark resonance, it's something akin to a myth: an Odyssey for the bleak, byzantine years directly after fall of the Soviet Union. It's frightening, addictive, and amongst anime series, pretty much without precedent.
But before all of that, Monster is a thriller. And a good one. Set in Germany in the '80s and '90s, it takes the uncertain times surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and paints upon them a tale of hidden evil, justice miscarried, and murder most foul. The series owes an obvious debt to Hitchcock (a debt it itself acknowledges by borrowing a pivotal scene from The 39 Steps), and it learned well at the Master's knee. The man himself couldn't put the screws to his audience better than Monster does during Tenma's descent from respected surgeon to serial murder suspect. It's an unbearably tense series, mounting terror cycling with cathartic release, each turn of which-the poisoning at the hospital, the confession of the burglar, the rescue of Johan's sister-leaves the series in a very different, and usually more frightening place. Even the series' side-stories-in which it catches up with secondary characters like the fiancÃ©e and the inspector-are tiny little marvels of small-scale cinematic sadism.
To this stew of wrong-man thrills and twisty chills the series adds a strong flavor of moral discourse. Tenma's journey doesn't just force the poor man into a series of escalating confrontations with the evil he inadvertently unleashed, but also asks some difficult questions of us. Is all life created equal? Is murder ever justified? Is saving a life ever wrong? How is evil created, and to what lengths are we justified in the pursuit of its destruction? Timely and knotty, Monster's moral paradoxes have no easy answers, and it offers none. Which is as it should be. And yet, through all of the human experimentation, greedy carnage, and righteous homicidal urges, the series somehow keeps its moral compass oriented due north. It never loses sight of the humanity of its characters, or of the human realities that underlie even the most heinous crimes.
With one exception: Johan. Johan's motivations aren't comprehensible by any human standard. That isn't a criticism; because Johan isn't human. Johan is a monster. As intelligent as the rest of the series is, it is in Johan that it crosses the line from smart to brilliant. He is a creation of such genius that he almost lies outside of the boundaries of the story, a bogeyman who could conceivably be called upon to scare bad children straight. It is he who pushes the series beyond mere thrillerhood into the realm of dark mythology. He's an abomination risen from the ashes of the Cold War to cast a bone-chilling shadow over Monster's world, a presence of such cold, omnipotent evil that he is more analogous to the dark gods of ancient tales than to any person. It is in his presence-or more accurately, in his black shadow-that the series hits its chilling heights, that it achieves a primeval resonance, like a nightmare recounted in moonless dark.
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