Following Up: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, Then And Now

The following was written on January 2nd, 2009:


So following my last post on the recently completed Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER, I went for a drink with my friends Derek and Gary, and we shot the shit about the series over beers. I have to say I feel a lot better about the ending having bounced my thoughts off of a couple of smart, well-read comics fans.

So, Spoilers.

Essentially, I wasn’t sure if all of the plot threads that had been developed had actually woven together in the end. My biggest problem was that the exact nature of the lessons were never really revealed. We even got to see into them at one point, but it seemed to be mostly recitations of a few songs and books… I ended up filling in the gaps, realising that the same sort of subliminal manipulation that Johan had been using throughout the series is the same way that he was manipulated, that the books/songs were part of that… but considering the volume of… data… dumped on the reader in the last few volumes, it would’ve been nice to get more than a peak through a partially-opened door. But yeah, I made my peace, and the theme of tearing down society being repeated from small to large (Johann manipulating individual children, the orphanage, the cartels, and finally a whole town) helped put all of it into perspective.

The other thing that bothered me was the cross-dressing. It was immediately obvious to me that Nina and Johann were switched during the scenes with the children being taken away to the Rose Mansion the first time, that it was Nina that was “awakened” and that Johan was fucked up in other ways, but I don’t understand why they were both dressed as girls as children. I suppose it’s because their mom would’ve gotten kicked out if she had two children rather than one? I don’t remember that being addressed though, and it just struck me as a little “surprise for surprise’s sake.”

Finally, I had a general sense of unease about the very ending, the conversation between Tenma and the twins’ mother, and the ‘conversation’ between Tenma and Johan. Essentially, I thought the former should have been more explicit, and the latter seemed like a cheat. My friend Derek put forth the theory that the conversation between Tenma and Johan really didn’t happen, and instead, Tenma’s dream was actually the content of his conversation with the mother. Johan wouldn’t have known about the mother’s decision. That kind of works, for me, but it requires some logical leaps that aren’t really in the story. I’m inclined to be more foregiving because I enjoyed everything up to the end very much, MONSTER is really a fantastic page-turning read, but I also feel it’s the kind of series that, because it turned on its plot reveals, needed an ending that was really conclusive and put all of the toys back in the box. Abhay has the right idea in the comments section:

“I was really disappointed with Monster’s ending when I read it, but having looked at it again since, I think it’s an okay set of chapters on its own terms, that just suffers just in terms of the expectations that are built going into it, based upon 17 previous books with more at stake. On its own terms it’s as thoughtful and entertaining as any previous episode– just as an ending, I felt disappointed.” – Abhay 

…and then I stopped writing. I got distracted by the site re-design, and my manga industry posts, and tenthousand other things. And now it is February 16th and I have something to add.

Since beginning to write a follow-up on my reaction to Monster, I’ve had a chance to really ruminate on the series and discuss it with people. A good number of my customers read this site now, and so they’ll come in to the store after reading something I’ve written here and ask me questions like “So you didn’t like Monster’s ending… should I keep reading it?” and my gut reaction is “Yes, of course.” Not because I’m a salesperson (heh) but because when I think about the time I spent reading Monster, I realize that I really, really enjoyed it. My disatisfaction with the ending was for what I thought were very specific reasons, but the ending very clearly didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the rest of it. And! And the more I thought about it, the more I really enjoyed it.

Okay, I’m going to stop talking in bold.

So, I went back and read the comments to my last post on Monster a couple of times and I think that, really, there are different readings of the series and some of them work and some of them don’t. Myk, one of the commenters, said this:

Well, it’s been something like two years since I read Monster, but I always thought that, as much as it is a riff on the classic “innocent fugitive wants to prove his innocence” theme, it is also an allegorical take on the creation process of an author.

Case in point, the huge role that books play in the second half of the series, how theMonster is created and all that. I saw Tenma and Johann as the two main forces an author has to fight with, when creating a work of fiction.

Tenma – the good guy – as the author’s side that is necessarily in love with the characters he created, who wants to preserve them, save them and keep the safe from harm.

Johann on the other hand as the destructive force, that knows that there must be destruction, tragedy, to propell the story forward to a conclusion.

So is Monster just an author’s extended internal monologue on how to treat his creations? Might be. Might be I’m reading too much into it. But at the very least I think people are not giving Urasawa quite as much credit as would be due. – Myk

monster_johann_childAnd that’s fair. And the more I think about it, I do think that judging the series entirely on how it sets up, and then follows-through, on the plot is maybe not entirely fair to the work. Or as Myk said, extending enough credit to the author. I know that in the one comic I’ve written in the last 20 years, the plot wasn’t nearly as important as emotion and resonance, and so maybe I should extend the same consideration to the author?

Further, as you can see above I really was starting to come around on the plot, that most of my initial problems with how it came together worked themselves out once I was able to start a dialogue about the work. Sort of like an impromptu book-club, discussing the work to see if it succeeded or not. In short, I think Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is a successful series (though not without its problems), and I feel a lot better about it now then after I read the whole series in a single day (surprise, surprise). I’ve got no problem recommending it to folks, and I’ll be keeping copies of all 18 volumes on my bookshelf, to be re-read again sometime (maybe with a bit of a break between volumes though…).

Thanks to everyone who chimed in with their thoughts on the series both in the comments and at the store!

– Christopher

17 thoughts on “Following Up: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, Then And Now”

  1. I agree with you about the “little Johann used to dress up in girl’s clothing” surprise; it did feel tacked on, and so did the “Sophie’s Choice” bit right near the end during the imaginary (?) bedside conversation.

    I understand that Johann didn’t ask to be made into a soulless, manipulative, child-murdering sociopath, but the last few pages try really, really hard to hammer home that point.

    It just seems unnecessary.

    Otherwise I really liked the last volume (and not just because it was 250 pages for $10!); I loved to see Inspector Lunge interacting with Wolfgang Grimmer and of course, Dr. Tenma finally.

    Also: I didn’t realize how much of the comic is a grand-scale celebration of food and the sharing of it with friends. It seems like the only time anyone is really happy in Monster is when they’re eating sausage or Tenma’s Japanese cooking.

  2. I agree with you about the lessons. That was probably the largest ‘gap’ I think existed when finishing the last volume. As important as Johan was, I felt the series was leading us up to learning more specifics about the lessons and I was disappointed when they hit the backburner the moment everything starting coming together in the final volumes.

    Both Johan and Anna being dressed as girls as children was also an odd thing tossed in. Well said that it felt like a surprise for surprise’s sake. The scene where the Mother hesitated about giving up one of them made me think that she knew they wanted Anna, and that perhaps she wanted her daughter over her son, so she dressed them both as girls, believing she could tell them apart well enough to hand over Johan. I think Johan felt this may’ve been the case as well, as it seemed during his short conversation with Dr. Tenma at the end.

    So many little questions in the end, but ultimately it’s a testiment to the series as a whole just how little they diminish a readers’ overall positive sense of the series (or mine anyway).

  3. I was under the impression that Johan’s mother had them dressed up as girls to confuse herself. Dressing them both up as girls, and confusing them, spared her the choice of choosing one over the other. That seemed to tie into the way coincidences play a stronger role than natural tendencies; both children are products of their environments and circumstances. It could have been either of the twins, and it being the “girl” is just an illusion.

    There’s an obvious biblical twist in there, so maybe I’m projecting something into this considering it’s a Japanese work, but that’s what I got out of the ending, and that’s why for me it worked.

  4. ??? I’m fairly certain (though I could be wrong… it’s been awhile since I’ve read MONSTER) it was established earlier in the series that Johann and Anna routinely wore each others clothes as a game to see if their mother was able to tell which of them she was speaking too or not, which is what was going on when she came in, followed by the experiment guys. I think it just got confusing because of how fractured the timeline became as it was the last of the revelations… but it was definately established that Johann could pass for Anna at any given point (such as how he played Inspector Suk), suggesting that he had much practice doing it.

    To me, the point of that whole thing was that it was that the ambiguity of their mother’s decision (IE: Did she know which child she was sacrificing, or did she not know? And in either case, which child was it she didn’t need? Was it that she wanted to save Johann, but mistook him for Anna, or that she wanted to save Anna, and was conscious of which one she was sacrificing?) the real catalyst for Johann’s transformation… as I believe it was also established that the Kinderheim 511 experiments were NOT what actually made Johann a monster… he was a monster to begin with.

    I’m not as bothered by the fact that Franz Bonaparta’s “lessons” were never concretely revealed… something like that seems to be better left ambiguous, otherwise people could just argue, “Oh, that’s BULLSHIT! That’d never actually work!” It’s just a McGuffin… it doesn’t actually matter what the specifics of the lessons were, as long as you get the gist of it. Knowing the specifics neither adds or detracts from the plot for me.

    Personally, I was more bothered by the pacing of the ending, as that final mindfuck moment seems rather abrupt, and then the last page was just completely unnessesary to me (though, for the life of me, I can’t think of anything better, so it’s hard to criticize… at least the entire series wasn’t all a dream!).

    Overall, I enjoyed the series as a complete work, and the ending, while not entirely perfect, does nothing to detract from the series as a whole. MONSTER is a really solid piece of fiction.

    That said, I definately don’t consider it Naoki Urasawa’s best work in the least! 20TH CENTURY BOYS is a VAST improvement, taking everything he learned over the course of MONSTER and honing it even further… having re-read the first volume just last week, after having read all but the final volume of the series, I cannot BELIEVE how much he sets up in that first volume that doesn’t pay off for what would have been YEARS at the time. There are some plot points in that first volume that don’t pay off until the 18 or 19th volume! I just can’t wrap my mind around how far thinking he must have been to have planned all that out. And, amazingly enough, PLUTO is even an improvement on THAT.

    Naoki Urasawa is definitely one of my favorite mangaka of all time, if not just one of my favorite overall creators, and I’m so happy to see his work finding an audience in North America.

  5. I thought volume 18 was worth it just for the kickass fight scene with Lunge and Roberto.
    The ending felt undercooked. Perhaps if Urasawa had another chapter or two to wrap it up, it would’ve made for a tighter resolution. My biggest question was, why did Tenma save Johann again? Didn’t he just spend 18 volumes blaming himself for everything horrible Johann did after he saved him the first time?

  6. I just finished the series and I wanted to talk to someone about it right away, but none of my friends have read the entire series. I’m glad that I found your site!
    I agree with Rippke about the awesome fight scene in vol. 18. It was great! Not to be too gruesome but, I do think that he could’ve added more blood in the chapters about the massacre. Afterall, when you think of a massacre, what images come to mind?

  7. Hi,

    so i thought i understood the ending. can anyone confirm that which kid was taken to 511 at the end? i thought it was anna who got taken into 511, and later shared her experience with johan. johan then turned into a monster… can someone confirm that? thanks.

  8. Wow, late comment but I’d like to add something.

    It’s been years now, but I was under the impression that Johan’s mother dressed the twins as girls because they were in hiding. The people after them were looking for a woman with twins, a boy and a girl. So the mother dressed both of them as girls and only took one out of the house at a time, presenting the illusion of a woman with one daughter. I considered this a huge mindfuck a the time.

    Overall I felt satisfied by the ending. Tenma’s decision to save Johan after a year of hunting him frustrated me, but I would have been more frustrated if Tenma had allowed him to die. For me, the series was about Tenma’s inner conflict with his nobler instincts. In the end, the noblest impulse of all wins out, even though it was all for nothing (Johan’s escape). For some reason, this felt worth it to me. Tenma can’t control Johan and he also can’t compromise himself, so this is the only possible ending.

  9. Lunge asked Tenma to save Johann because Lunge wanted Tenma to hold on to his own belief that “all lives are equal” and that Tenma didn’t make the wrong choice of saving Johann 10 years ago.

  10. The ending really disapointed me… i didnt read the manga, only watched the anime but the whole time i was thinking, that Johan isn´t really THE bad guy in this story, i was waiting till the end to see this “omg, this CANT BE!”-moment but there wasn´t one… when Johan hold his gun at this kid at the ending, it shows that he is realy a monster and this thing disapointed me… Johan was the bad guy at the begining of Monster and was even a bigger monster at the very ending, just boring in my opinion..

  11. Hi,
    I just wanted to say that I loved this series. It was amazing, so thought provoking on humanity and what people can be made to do. I also love the references to Hitler, the purging of undesired races and also the talk of the genetic experiments along with the pairings to create the perfect children, the perfect race. All of this just blew my mind.

    I wanted to say to that I have been reading through everyone’s comments and noticed the main concern is everyone is confused as to why johan dressed as a girl as a child. I have the answer to this. If you really payed attention you realize that the mother was trying to escape with her twins from the scientists. The scientists would have know to look for a woman with two small children the same age one boy and one girl. The mother, to make them less noticible dressed Johan up as a girl too. So she would appear to have identical twin girls rather than fraternal twins boy and girl. This would make people not question who she and her children are.

  12. I can see here that just like me, everyone is a big fan of Monster and I sincerely advice all of you to read the book “Another Monster” written by Urasawa himself to get answers to all your questions. The book has an interesting story line woven perfectly with the events taking place in Monster. Many plot lines of the Manga are explained in detail like how Johan successfully manipulates authorities and children of Kinderheim 511 to destroy themselves, How Bonaparta planned his experiment to create a perfect race, the logic he put into it and many more things. I was blown away after watching the anime but it was after reading the book that I truly understood that Monster is a story of an unimaginable magnitude and is truly beyond comparison.

  13. so i just finished the anime series of monster, and i’d have to give it an 8/10. I did enjoy the journey but at the same time i found it to be rather drawn out. i also feel that some of the dialogue in some parts were a little unrealistic for such a serious anime. for example: while roberto and lunge are having their little rumble, roberto decides to kind of inform lunge how he liked the cocoa that was served to him at the orphanage. i felt like that was kind of irrelevant to the scene but just sort of thrown in there sloppily so the viewer would realize roberto and grimmer’s connection (i hope my concern made sense lol). i wish they had shown a little more of lunge’s background seeing how he was my favorite character! but overall i was satisfied w/ this series, i just wished it was a little more condensed.

  14. I just finished the Monster series (in two days time believe you me) and it was much deeper than I could ever have imagined. A great series with many different and interesting characters, Personal favourite was Mr. Grimmer for sure. Also, I want to adress some of the main issues people seem to have had from my point of view.

    I’m guessing it was clearer in the novel but even from the series I felt as if Johan and Anna/Nina were dressed as girls in order to hide from the authorities as some have earlier mentioned. I base this mainly on the statements made from the old man who was questioned about them by Dr. Tenma. He only knew that there was one girl living there with her mother, probably the two kids were not allowed to exit the house at the same time. This most likely means that they were always dressed like girls, at least outside of the house, whereas the only logical explanation would be to hide the family’s identity.

    In the end it is quite clear according to me that Johan has not awakened and the whole ‘conversation’ between him and Dr. Tenma is merely Tenma’s imagination, based on his earlier dialogue with the mother. Exactly what she said to him is not revealed but it is insinuated that she told him whether she chose Anna/Nina or if it was coincidence/unluck.

    Neither was Johan born evil as someone had commented. Just because he wasn’t taken doesn’t mean he wasn’t affected by all that happened to the family. His affection for his sister was immense and when she told him all the terrible things that had gone on it is not unlikely that he would be severely affected. He thought that it had happened to him and acted as if it had. Notice how different the effects were on the two kids, probably because one of them actually had lived through it and one imagined he had.

    Okay, I better get back to work, I have now lost a couple of days hah!

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