Reviewish: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster


So for Christmas I decided to treat myself a to a complete reading of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, an 18 volume manga series translated and published in English by Viz. I’d read the first five volumes as they were coming out, but unfortunately got sidetracked as the series progressed. Since I had a free day, deliberately clear of any obligations, I decided I’d give it a go.

So, honestly? It’s just an exceptionally well-done comic. There’s no way to look at this and not recognize the incredibly high level of craft, the sheer ability put into this series. The character development, the labrynthine plot, and just how compelling it is as a story! There wasn’t one point while reading that dragged for me, where I wasn’t propelled into the next chapter, the next book. And the art! It’s understated, probably doesn’t give the best impression on the ‘flip-test’, but it’s pretty clear that Urasawa and his legion of assistants can draw pretty much anything; any expression, any angle, any background character, and dozens of unique faces and body-types and even body language. He has a wonderful gift for caricature too, character faces that could seem cartoony (or in some cases grotesque…) work very well within the context of the story. The series is in almost every respect fantastically accomplished.

The thing that bugged me, is bugging me, is the ending. It’s why I am blogging at 5:10am instead of, you know, being asleep for when I have to get up for work in 3 hours. 🙁

I’m having a hard time reconciling the decisions of some of the characters, and am… unclear… on how some of it played out. I’ve got theories on some of it, and my theories are leading me to be more disappointed than not. I think part of the problem is that enough of the “plot” was resolved, but a lot of it was left open-ended as well, giving us instead the emotional resolution we needed. But in a page-turner thriller graphic novel series, I’m not… entirely… ready to just accept the emotional resolution and forget the rest.

I don’t really want to read it again at this point, as I am tired, but I kind of hope I get to wake up tomorrow and there’ll be lots of discussion in the comments section here. I know there was lots of discussion when this series wrapped up in Japan (and in scans), and lots of… heated… commentary arose out of it, but honestly I tried to stay away knowing that I’d read it all one day for myself.

Anyway, your thoughts would be welcome, dear readership, if you’ve read it yourselves. Maybe I’ll try and coax some of my buddies out for a beer after work tomorrow (today…) and we can try and figure it out.

Until then, feel free to let loose in the comments section!

– Chris

15 Replies to “Reviewish: Naoki Urasawa’s Monster”

  1. Haven’t read this series, but most manga/anime have so many subplots going it’s almost impossible to tie them all together by the end. In fact, I have a friend who says this is precisely why he hates and cannot watch/read anime/manga.

    Myself, I’m sort of ambivalent about the way so many manga end up getting “hog tied” at the end…if that’s the metaphor I’m looking for. Most of the time (eg, Junji Ito’s “Tomie” series) I just go “oh” at the end (since those are a series of stories to begin with), but sometimes (30% of the time?) I get the “wtf?” moment at the end you’re talking about.

    Best advice is probably–sit down and write us a review. That oughta clarify things, and I’d appreciate such a thing since I’m leery of spending a couple of days reading a series that is supposedly great but ultimately baffling.

  2. 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 the Monster 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 extend 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.

  3. Cool to read your initial thoughts, Chris.
    I just got back from a week visiting family to my order finally arriving… issues 15-18 of Monster. Starting up issue 15 I realized that I am now heavily confused after not picking it up since 14 came out in mid-08. Dayam, I might have to do a giant read-through as well.

    No matter how you slice it, Monster is definitely up there on my best continuing series of 2008 list. Now to brace myself for the end…

  4. 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.

    Urasawa excels at suggestion more than anything– those wonderful last page cliffhangers of so many chapters– I just remember so many giant panels of people looking terrified not by something happening but someone saying that something had happened. So much of the book is people telling stories about things that had already happened. That’s taken away from him for the ending.

    17 books of “what is that Johann up to”– it’s hard not to want more. When it comes time to see Johann be present on the page, it’s competing with the Johann of the Imagination that Urasawa so skillfully created.

    The actual character arcs– I think a problem with Monster (though a problem I’m impressed by, in terms of its nerviness…?) is the length of time Tenma goes missing. I think Urasawa solves that in 20th Century Boys by having that be more of an ensemble piece, but… Of course, I haven’t read the ending of 20th Century Boys yet, and I’d be deeply shocked if he found a successful way to end that series, given how much further he goes with the shocks & twists and the level of building craziness upon craziness.

    For me, Urasawa’s really at his best at around the volume 4 or 5 mark of whatever he’s working on, when he’s just really settled into his universe and can leap around chapter by chapter adding multiple strains of incident and tension at-will, but when he’s also starts weaving in pay-off moments. Tenma vs. that whacked-out Detective in Volume 5 or 6 is just some of the best stuff ever. The short guy with the fingernail clippers. That amazing stretch with the recovering alcoholic detective. Any chapter with Tenma’s wife, especially– god, I loved those.

    He’s one of my all-time favorite guys, notwithstanding the endings.

  5. I too found the ending a little disappointing. Part of that is, as other posters have pointed out, an almost necessary anti-climax due to the insane level of build-up in what’s gone before. Sort of like in a horror movie when you finally get to see the monster (or killer or whatever the main threat is): with very few exceptions, it’s usually a disappointment compared with what you’ve imagined.

    Another part is that several main characters are sidelined for the final: e.g. Dieter, Tenma’s wife, and others. Much of vols #17 and #18 doesn’t read like it’s gearing up to a big finale; instead Urasawa keeps introducing new characters almost up to the very end. I think that diluted some of the emotional pay-off for me.

  6. I’ve only read up through volume 13 so far, and it’s kind of slowed down for me at that point, mainly because so little of the story is about Tenma once Urasawa gets into “But now I’ve got an idea for this new character” mode.

    Still, the comic makes me tear up so much, because the emotions are so raw, and Urasawa is so good at “acting-through-character-face-drawing.” The part about the reformed-Nazi birdwatcher who is sad because the birds won’t forgive him for his war-crimes makes me flat-out blubber & bawl.

    I do plan to binge-read the remaining books very soon, if only to have my plate clear for when the two new (at least stateside) Urasawa books launch next month.

  7. I was actually waiting for any thoughts on your blog about the last volume. I think I may have started reading the series because of how much you seemingly “advertised” it here.

    After reading volume 18, though, it does seem a bit hollow as to how everything played out. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the volumes prior, with all the twists and turns, but when you stack up this last volume to them it kinda makes you feel shortchanged about the whole thing. Not that I expected overt dramatics at the end; it may just be the whole buildup put my expectations at a different level.

  8. Hi All – this is a long post about my interpretation of the ending, why I liked it – Spoilers Galore for Monster and Gungrave

    So…, I enjoyed the ending right up to the last scene where (sorry talking about the Anime here) which left me a little disatisfied as I wanted more closure. Not sure if you are all saying you didn’t like it for the same reason as me, but here’s my take on it, which ultimately made me like it even more, after I’d finished watching it (last night)…

    So anyway, the ending kind of reminds me of the ending of Gun Grave, another great Anime, but not on the same level…

    Anyway, I remember thinking before the last episode of Gun Grave ***SPOILER ALERT*** No amount of carnage could slate my thirst for revenge as the main villian, Harry, had been such a c%&#. Then the ending came with Grave forgiving Harry, and dsepite wanting to kill Harry for everything he’d done, as what he wanted more was for them to be able to return to their lives together as friends –
    Despite his thrist for revenge, the good side of his humanity to shone through – which was such a better ending
    than a revenge based one.

    Much the same, had there been a big carnage filled shoot out between with Tenma and Johan, or any of the other ‘hero’ characters it would have been satisfying in an Adrenaline pumping kind of way, but it would also have meant that the darker side of Humanity had won over. The fact that everything could be resolved without Tenma ever having killed anyone, is the most uplifting ending possible. Grimmers death was the most touching for me however.
    Anyway. when the twins Mother says, “who is the real monster” who was she referring to? Herself, kind of… but more specifically it was Johan (whom she chose to save) who turned out to be the psychopath, despide it being Anna who was taken to the Red Rose Mansion. It was because of her attitude “Even if I die, one of these children growing inside of me will punish you”. Where as Bonaparte’s final words to Anna were something along the lines of, you can become anything you want, you don’t have to become a Monster like I was training you to become… So, just as the picture books stated that people had the Monsters inside of them, not they were monsters themselves, the real Monster was the propensity for people to be driven to evil acts through emotions such as hatred, sadness and revenge. That Tenma, the embodiment of ‘goodness’ to be saved from this so important I think.
    So what will become of Johan, a the final scene shows him having escaped from the hopsital… perhaps he will go on to live a life like Bonaparte did, after he wrote the book “a quiet town” – maybe he will continue to be a psycho… but I don’t see how he could be as bad as he was before, he has a real name now, people know who he is, maybe he’s been changed… who knows but the ending was not that evil acts will always beget evil acts (Tenma/anyone getting revenge on Johan) but in a world filled with deprived acts, it is still possible that goodnes of humanity can survive.

    so thats my take on it, very heavily influenced by my take on life no doubt – what do you guys think? Is this the conclusions you all came to also?


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