Naoki Urasawa's Monster is best read in large chunks, so that the plot twists, cliffhangers, revelations, and drama can carry you along. I loved this series as I was flying through it, although some of it seems really far-fetched now that I've put it all together for this post. Pretty much everything and everyone is connected. There's a lot of suspension of disbelief involved. If you can do that, though, this series is quite a ride. I have a few volumes of Urasawa's 20th Century Boys on my TBR pile, and I'm looking forward to those even more now.
I had to skip volumes 3 and 4, because the library didn't have those for some reason. However, I had seen up to that point in the anime and at least had a general idea of what happened. I tried to follow my notes as closely as possible, without interjecting what I knew about later volumes into my reviews of the earlier volumes. It felt very weird, but I think I mostly did okay. Warning: my post includes major spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 1) translated by Satch Watanabe – Dr. Tenma's life is going fairly well, until he gets frustrated with being used for the hospital director's benefit and chooses to operate on a little boy rather than on the mayor, who was brought in later but would have been a more politically advantageous patient. He is then demoted and dumped by the director's daughter, after which the director and several of his cronies turn up poisoned. Nine years later (1995), Tenma is head of surgery and saves the life of a lock picker. Lunge, the detective in charge of the case involving the lock picker, still suspects Tenma of those poisonings. Then Tenma learns the truth: Johan, the boy he saved, killed those doctors and paved the way for Tenma's career advancement.
The story's setup is nice and clear: an idealistic doctor tries to do good things and keep himself apart from political games and ends up saving the life of a monster. The series' “monster,” a little boy, is on the loose, his twin sister is missing, and Tenma is suspected of having killed several people for his own gain.
I like Urasawa's artwork – clean lines and character designs that are more than just “stock face with different hair and clothes.” I also like the setup, although it's hard to believe that a little kid managed to kill multiple grownups like a pro.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 2) translated by Satch Watanabe – Tenma goes looking for Johan's twin sister Anna and finds Nina (Anna with a new name and new life). Unfortunately, he's too late to save her adoptive parents. Nina remembers that she tried to kill her brother, and that he let her. Nina leaves, and Tenma, now officially a murder suspect, resigns his post at the hospital and finds someone willing to train him to shoot a gun.
Still going well for me. Tenma is a good man on the run, and Nina is a kick-butt young woman who finds out she's linked to a killer. Why did Johan let her shoot him in the head? Will Inspector Lunge ever realize the truth about Tenma? At this point, Tenma can't trust anyone. Even the police have shown that they can be bought by Johan.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 5) translated by Hirotaka Kakiya – Tenma is nearly lured into a trap by a criminal psychologist colleague, who learns almost too late that Johan met a serial killer he's in the process of studying. Tenma is given a ride by an elderly couple and is declared a good man by the husband, a retired cop. Meanwhile, Nina tracks down one of the cops who killed her adoptive parents, but he may not live long enough to confess. And Lunge lets a killer go free in order to lure in Tenma, but miscalculates and is stabbed.
I have decided that Lunge is creepy – willing to let a known killer go in order to go after Tenma. He reminds me a bit of L from Death Note. Anyway, both Lunge and the criminal psychologist assume the “Johan” is just another personality of Tenma's, and not a real, separate person. The bit at the end of the volume, when Lunge screwed up, was a shock.
This volume meandered a bit, but was still good. Tenma got less page-time than I would have liked. I appreciated that Tenma was able to win the trust of his criminal psychologist colleague – it shows that there's at least a chance he can convince people like Lunge to work with him, rather than against him. Nina goes after one of her parents' killers, not for revenge, but rather to help Tenma prove his innocence, not realizing that that's not his goal.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 6) translated by Noriko Watanabe – Tenma performs surgery on Lunge, who's still determined to go after him. Then we see Tenma's ex, who has hit rock bottom. She meets Roberto, who's also after Tenma. At the last moment, she protects Tenma and is shot. Tenma saves her and disappears to Munich. Then we shift to a story about an old man and his probable son. Karl, the true son, begins investigating someone pretending to be the man's son, but hits a brick wall when that young man commits suicide. Karl is then befriended by Johan, who seems gentle and kind.
This volume was basically composed of two parts – the first part, with Tenma, his ex-fiancee, and Roberto, and the second part with Karl. Tenma continues to be doggedly good, saving two people who he knows could be dangerous to him. Seeing what Tenma's ex, Eva, had become, it was hard to imagine them ever being a couple – she was broke, her home had burned down, she drank all the time, and she even slept with Roberto.
The second part is odd. I have no idea what Johan's goal is, but I'm willing to continue and find out. It puts me on edge, knowing how much danger Karl, and his research partner Lotte, are in. I wouldn't be surprised if Johan either kills them or frames them for Edmund's death.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 7) translated by Masataka Kakiya – The PI Schuwald hired begins putting the pieces together and realizes that all the murders he investigated when he was a cop were designed to turn Schuwald into a lonely old man. Meanwhile, Schuwald learns that Karl is his son and takes Johan on as his secretary. The PI, Richard, is killed for getting too close to the truth. His therapist (psychologist? Not sure what the best term is) is almost killed too, by Roberto, who's erasing all traces of Johan. Tenma saves the doc and then leaves Dieter (a young boy) with him. The doc realizes too late that Tenma doesn't want to prove his own innocence, but rather plans to kill Johan.
I love this volume. It reveals that everything Johan has done during the past four years is related. Actually, everything, period, is related – the PI's therapist (or whatever) is a colleague of the criminal psychologist from earlier in the series, and the PI used to be one of the cops investigating the murders Johan committed. Everything was leading up to cutting as many of Schuwald's emotional ties as possible. I'm still wondering about the “why” of everything, but I'm sure Urasawa has something up his sleeve.
Although he wasn't around for long, it was still sad that Richard died in a way that made it look like he'd gone back to drinking, after he'd just started to mend his relationship with his daughter. I'm also bummed that Tenma has begun shedding the people in his life, like Dieter, who might prevent him from killing Johan in the end. Since Tenma's first instinct is to save others, it's hard to believe that he'll actually be able to go through with his plans.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 8) translated by Juri Nozaki – Lunge continues to hunt Tenma, trying to mentally become him in order to figure out his next moves. He becomes so involved in his work that he neglects his own familial relationships. Tenma is circling around Johan, trying to find the perfect moment to kill him. However, he's the sort of guy who saves lives wherever he goes. Can he really bring himself to kill? Meanwhile, Johan tidies up some loose ends and is apparently inspiring children to play deadly games on rooftops. A Czech picture book may hold the key to Johan, his past, and his goals. Is he searching for his true name?
The story is back to feeling a bit scattered. I'm worried for Tenma and what his goal, if he can accomplish it, will do to him. I wonder about Johan and that picture book. What Johan is inspiring those kids to do is pretty chilling – they look up to him, and it gets them either hurt or killed. It's also a wonder that no one has put two and two together yet, although people do have a tendency to see only what they want to see, and Johan is really good at projecting trustworthiness.
I still love this series' artwork. I'm too used to reading series where, if you swapped characters' clothing and hairstyles, they would often be indistinguishable from each other. That's usually not the case in this series, although the list of characters grows so huge that there do end up being a few look-alikes here and there.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 9) translated by Satch Watanabe – Tenma prepares to kill Johan at the book donation ceremony, except Johan's lackey, Roberto, stops him. Johan has the library set ablaze. Tenma saves Schuwald, but Nina prevents him from killing Johan. Schuwald directs Johan to Prague, where Johan and Nina's mother lived. Their mom was friends with Karl's mom (who was killed by Johan, probably). Also, the picture book is about a monster that splits into two and gets inside people in order to take their names, before eating them and moving on.
This volume is pretty solid. Also, Naoki Urasawa's Germany is incredibly small. Literally everyone is connected. You can't go anywhere without bumping into someone who's connected to Johan in some way.
I'm glad that Tenma wasn't able to kill Johan, but I suspect he could have, if Nina hadn't stopped him. He seemed pretty focused. I'm sure it would have damaged him, though. I do wonder why Nina didn't kill Johan herself.
And yay, Lunge now knows that Johan is not a figment of Tenma's deranged imagination.
Oh, and that picture book is the freakiest thing ever. No wonder hardly anyone knows about it – I wouldn't think many people would want to read something like that to their kids. I suppose it does remind me a little of Der Struwwelpeter or Max und Moritz, but those books dealt with morality and proper behavior, and I don't see that here.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 10) translated by Sumiko Katsura – Mr. Grimmer, an ex-spy, is investigating an old child abuse case in the former East Germany and in Prague. He's particularly interested in 511 Kinderheim, where children's personalities were experimented upon. He tracks down the former director, who's made a new life for himself, but the man is soon killed. Before he dies, he gives Grimmer a key to a safety deposit box containing an interview with Johan about his past. Grimmer passes the key on to a naive Czech police officer.
Nina kills four people in this volume, which seems very...odd. It doesn't fit what we've seen of her up to this point. One she kills with a gun, and the other three she kills with poisoned candy, like her brother. Very bewildering. Have the events of the previous volumes broken her, and is she now out for revenge, too?
The story is heating up, but slowly. There's a smiling ex-spy and some torture (pulling out fingernails). The 511 Kinderheim stuff is obviously connected to the main story, but Grimmer is new.
I'm dying to know what's on that tape. What did young Johan say about his past?
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 11) translated by Satch Watanabe – The naive cop works with Grimmer and finds Johan's tape. Unfortunately, the cop is captured by the former Czech secret police. Tenma joins up with Grimmer, and together they retrieve the tape and learn that Johan's greatest fear is that the experiments at 511 Kinderheim will make him forget Anna. We also learn that Grimmer is a graduate of 511 Kinderheim, trained to become a spy while he was only a child.
511 Kinderheim was a nasty place. So, was it basically a spy factory? It was a shock to learn that a man so nice as Grimmer came from there, but it explains somewhat why he is the way he is.
This volume left me with so many questions. Okay, so now we know what Johan's greatest fear is. What does that mean for Nina, considering that she doesn't want to be anywhere near him? Also, now that it's been revealed that Johan was killing while dressed as Nina, I can't help but wonder, why? Why look like her while he kills?
So of course I have to read on.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 12) translated by Hiroki Shirota – Johan, as Anna, sends a little boy to see his prostitute mother, knowing it will probably break him. Meanwhile, Lunge goes on a sort of working vacation through Prague. He's trying to find the author of the creepy picture book. Grimmer and Tenma part ways, and Tenma is captured. Schuwald, Eva, and all of Tenma's former patients are determined to help him.
Okay, the bit with Johan trying to break poor little Milosh was horrible. I vaguely remember thinking, early on in the series, that Johan was so often around children because he actually liked them and saw a little of the boy he once was in them. In reality, though, he treats them no better than anyone else, hurting them and/or convincing them to kill each other. Is Anna/Nina really the only person in the world that he actually cares about? And, by the way, what's his definition of “caring”? If Nina were with him, would she be safe? What does Johan want?
Grimmer was another tragic character in this volume. His experiences at 511 Kinderheim meant he had to be taught how to smile (which is probably why he does it so often now), and, even then, he didn't always know the proper expression to wear in every circumstance. He didn't know how to properly react to his own son's death, but he seemed to do well enough around Milosh.
I'm not surprised at all that Tenma was caught because he stopped to help a hurt child. Urasawa never misses a chance to remind readers that Tenma is a healer down to his bones. And, continuing the series' many, many coincidences, Eva is seeing the same person to overcome her alcoholism that the private investigator was way back in volume 7. Urasawa's Germany is very tiny.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 13) translated by Hirotaka Kakiya – Tenma is imprisoned, but Lunge keeps working on tracking down the picture book author, pausing only to give Tenma advice on how to behave during his interrogation. Following that advice, Tenma stays quiet as he is questioned. His many friends and ex-patients find him a lawyer, but then Roberto comes and threatens Eva, who has actually seen Johan. Tenma confesses to the murders in order to escape and save Eva, while Lunge visits Tenma's lawyer to ask him about his father's connection to the picture book author.
The interconnectedness of everyone may now be too much even for me. Tenma's fabulous lawyer just happens to have had a connection to Roberto and the picture book author. Right.
This volume has a bit of a flashback to the horrible events in volume 6, when Eva first met Roberto. Here, it's revealed that it really did horrify her to have sex with Roberto...which makes sense because, if I remember correctly, he made it fairly clear that it wouldn't bother him to kill her. I'm just glad that Urasawa makes it clear that all this upset her, because I haven't always been certain about Eva's emotions. She's good at covering everything up with a mask of loathing and disdain.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 14) translated by Nobu Yamada and Masaru Noma – The lawyer's father really was a spy, and the lawyer chooses to let Tenma escape. Meanwhile, Nina is in Prague, learning about the Red Rose Mansion and the picture books from a puppeteer (who happens to be the son of the picture book author). Johan burns the mansion down, which is when the 46 bodies at that place are discovered. Then there's a flashback to the night Johan gave a gun to Nina and asked her to kill him – he was okay with it, because she is him, and the most important thing, or something like that. Meanwhile, Eva, warned by Tenma's escape, gets away from Roberto but may have landed herself in more trouble.
I'm really confused about Johan and Anna/Nina's timeline. When did the Red Rose Mansion stuff happen, 511 Kinderheim, Nina and Johan's mother, etc.? There are a lot of parts here, and while the connections are still interesting, it can be a bit much.
I've started to question whether Johan's death would really be the end of this series. I spent so much of the series thinking that Johan was the series' titular monster, but he didn't just spring into the universe fully formed. He was molded, and we're seeing more of that now.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 15) translated by Satch Watanabe and Hiroki Shirota – Eva identifies Johan for Baby, who plans to use him to create a perfect dictator. The man who started off as Eva's bodyguard is now sent to kill her, but he refuses to do so and is shot. He gets to Tenma in time to tell him what's going on, and Tenma tells Eva to go to his doctor friend in Germany. However, she decides she should kill Johan herself. Meanwhile, Nina almost gets her memories back and asks for hypnosis to help her remember everything. Tenma is hurt and gets taken in by some nice people...one of whom is planning on killing Peter Capek.
I still enjoyed this, although it had some “OMG really?” moments: the hypnosis, which worked perfectly right away, and Eva, completely inexperienced with guns, deciding to kill Johan. Yes, I know Eva liked Martin and still likes Tenma, even though she won't admit it, but still. Completely inexperienced with guns. Even Tenma had the sense to get training first.
I'm still hooked. I really want to know more about Nina's memories. I have a feeling she experienced all the bad stuff at the mansion and developed amnesia about the whole thing, and Johan decided to protect her by taking it all upon himself.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 16) translated by Satch Watanabe (Sigma Six) – Milan fails to kill Peter Capek. Meanwhile, the criminal psychologist learns that several serial killers were encouraged, by Johan, to kill specific people outside their usual victim profiles. Baby is killed, probably also on Johan's orders. Capek is visited by Johan, who tells him that he'll probably be killed by Nina, and that he should tell Nina where he (Johan) is going to be. Tenma stops Johan's apprentice from killing Eva (I think – my notes are kind of scribbly here) and then ditches them both when he learns where Johan is.
Now we have another person who accidentally helped a monster and feels guilty about the results. Milan helped Capek, his friend at the time, go to East Germany from Czechoslovakia and feels responsible for the terrible things he then did.
This, all of this, is so complex, widespread, and deeply embedded that I don't know if even killing Johan could stop any of it. It's not that the whole world is evil – Tenma keeps coming across good people, too – it's just that this isn't something killing one person could solve. Tenma's efforts seem futile.
So, now we know that Johan and Nina were intentionally bred as part of some kind of program. That last scene seems like an indicator that it was Nina who came home to find Johan dressed as her, which would fit with my theory that it was Nina at the mansion. I guess Johan was dressing as Nina even back when they were children.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 17) translated by Reina Maruyama – Nina realizes the truth – it was her that was taken to the Red Rose Mansion and her that saw the massacres, not Johan. He just took on her memories as his own. Tenma stops Nina from killing herself and tries to head off Johan's coming massacre in Ruhenheim, the home of Klaus Poppe/Franz Bonaparta. Lunge and Grimmer are already there, but it's too late – Johan's agents have handed out guns and increased the townspeople's hostility and paranoia.
Neat, I actually managed to correctly guess this volume's twist in advance. I still have no idea why Johan dressed as Nina. Maybe because he thought she was more important than himself? Anyway, even if Nina was the one at the mansion, it was still Johan at 511 Kinderheim, right? So they both had horrific childhoods, but Johan was the only one who took all that and turned it into years of murders. I still feel kind of sorry for him, though. Had their circumstances been different, would he have turned out differently?
I'm happy to see more of Lunge and Grimmer. The massacre at Ruhenheim happens fast – this town must have been a powder keg from the start, for Johan's people to stir them up so quickly.
A warning (although, if you made it this far, you're probably going to be reading this volume anyway): this volume contains the killing of a dog, a cat, and several kids. I don't recall any of it being on-page, although several of the bodies are shown.
Naoki Urasawa's Monster (manga, vol. 18) translated by Satoki Yamada – Tenma arrives at Ruhenheim and rescues some people while looking for Johan. Lunge heads out to stop the boss behind the killings and encounters Roberto, who was also one of the kids at 511 Kinderheim (because of course). Meanwhile, Grimmer is trying to keep Klaus Poppe alive and ends up being mortally wounded. Tenma arrives in time for his death. Tenma has his final showdown with Johan. Nina doesn't want Tenma to kill, and Roberto shoots Poppe (who fell in love with Johan and Nina's mother and came to regret all that he had done) and dies. Johan turns his gun on Wim (one of the children in Ruhenheim) and is shot by Wim's drunken father. In the end, Tenma is cleared of all murder charges, so is Grimmer (although he's dead, so I'm not sure how much it matters), Lunge becomes a professor, Nina becomes a lawyer, and Eva becomes a kitchen decorator/designer. Johan is still alive but becomes closed up and non-responsive...although the very end makes it seem like he has escaped once again.
It's almost ridiculous how many characters turn up for the final showdown with Johan. So much happens in this volume, and I'm not sure what to think. I'm a little mad about Grimmer's fate. I wanted that guy to get another chance at a decent life. I think Tenma would have helped him.
I'm glad I made it all the way to the end, but it's a little unsatisfying. It's not terribly important, but I'd have liked to learn what Johan and Nina's mom named them. Will Johan ever heal? And who are we supposed to see as the “monster” in this series? For Tenma, for most of the series, it was Johan. Now, though, it seems like Johan's mother is being named as the root of all of it, for naming her children as executors of her vengeance and for choosing between her children when it came time to send one to the recital at the mansion. Johan spent his whole life wondering if Anna/Nina was sent because his mother preferred him, or if she had simply mixed up which child was which (since Johan dressed like his sister) and had intended to send him, the less favored child, instead.
I'm still not sure what to think about this ending, although it's one that will probably stick with me.