He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Rewatching some of the episodes with my flatmate the other day, reminded me why I love anime and manga this much. Beyond taking me to another world, time or different people, they are a good way to know another person’s opinion on the matters which I, myself think about but cannot come up with an answer and creater’s pursuit of an answer through their characters is always worth lending an ear. If I were to give a couple of examples; Vash (Trigun) is always against violence, though because of the world he lives in and the bounty on his head, he spends his every day life face to face with violence and death, thus his choices and position is surely fun to watch. Also in Psycho-Pass, arguments revolving around morals, goodness, law and judgement made me and my friends argue later on about these issues for hours. Monster too, as the previous examples, is a masterpiece for me with its characters, story and Urasawa’s questions.
First things first, the story. Doctor Kenzo Tenma is in his 30’s, a well-known and successfull brain surgeon. He’s young, handsome, also kind hearted and humble (there’s no end to my praises when it comes to Tenma… : 3). He’s also the favourite doctor of the director of hospital and his daughter Eva’s fiancée and soon to be promoted. However, Tenma’s relationship with the father-in-law starts to turn sour because he dumps all of his academic work on Tenma and ‘asks’ to leave his own research. However, Tenma starts to feel uncomfortable about the political bias in hospital and the behaviour of the director. One night while waiting in emergency room, two patients are brought to hospital; two 10 year-old children. Kids’ foster parents are found dead at the crime scene, girl is experiencing a severe psychological trauma and boy is shot in the head. While Tenma is preparing for the surgery, he gets another phone call from Heinemann, ‘requesting’ to leave the boy’s surgery to another doctor and take up the mayor as a patient. Tenma, being reached to his limit, refuses Heinemann and treats Johann. After that, it’s all downhill for him unfortunately; Eva calls off the engagement, Heinemann offers another doctor for promotion and he looses his social standing at hospital. After a while, Heinemann is murdered suspiciously. Even tough police suspects Tenma for a while because of their disagreement, since everyone speaks so well about his character and there is no apparent evidence, he is left out of the case and starts to get back on track little by little.
Of course, this is only a beginning of what’s to come. Johan, who survived the incident, comes back after 9 years. He thanks Tenma for saving his life, admits that he was the one who killed Heinemann after hearing Tenma lamenting him while in coma, saying he thinks of Tenma as a father figure (imagine how touching this reunion is for Tenma). With a guilty conscience and a question like “If you were to know a person, whose life is in your hands, is manipulative and deceitful and is the cause of the murders of several, would you kill him there or would you take a step back, thinking it’s not your place to end a life no matter what?” in mind, Tenma goes on a 74-episode-long journey to kill Johan, feeling responsible and leaving everything he has.
Kenzo Tenma, from Naoki Urasawa’s Artbook
This is a really intriguing question. While watching I’ve always tried to imagine what would I do if I were to have the choice to end a life, a person who took so many lives -even though indirectly- and ruined many others. “All lives are equal.” I would have never doubted that statement. This is exactly why Tenma’s story is a tragedy.
I would like to refer to an article written by Beliz Gucbilmez: Tragedy and Lateness, an Onthologic and Epistemologic Approach. In this article three tragedies belonging to three different era are studied -Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, End Game by Samuel Beckett. All the misfortunes happened to the protagonists of these tragedies are always caused by not knowing the truth and by the time the truth is known, it is too late for everything.
Counter to the infinite knowledge of gods, knowledge bestowed late upon humans actually causes ignorance, lack of interference and power. (pg. 25)
Kenzo Tenma could never guess that the 10 year-old boy is a psychopath, he would hear Tenma and grant his ‘wish’. At their reunion 9 years later, after learning the truth, only solution for Tenma is to never exist to begin with.
Tragic characters are doomed to ‘chasing the fleeting time’ and this is the latent direction of every tragic action. Thus, even though the story seems to progress forward in text, tragic character’s desperate attempt to intervene actually points out to past, an ambiguous starting point. (pg. 29)
Attempting to travel back in time is, indeed, in vain because no matter what he does, he neither can bring back the dead, nor bring himself to a point where he’s able to pull the trigger and take Johan’s life. “All lives are equal.” is carved deep into Tenma. On his journey, after learning more about Johan and Anna’s childhood and happenings around himself, rather than being more relieved Tenma gets more depressed, delves into more despair and he starts to loose his ‘control’ over the situation. Being a successfull surgeon and preserving is position as a favourite for a long time, Tenma’s struggle to gain control over (both is life and situation with Johan) was addictive to watch.
Reichwein & Eva & Lunge
At last, confronting Johan in South Germany, Tenma is forced to make the same choice once Anna and Johan’s mother had to : if every life is equally sacred but you have to decide for one of them to die, who would you choose? This correspondence was done really well; some choices cannot be categorised as either right or wrong, they hold much more meaning than those ‘simple’ categories. For Tenma to be able to save Johan one more time is a strange/special state of mind since he was actually able to shake off the state where his identity was vanishing bit by bit, caused by the violence he witnessed along the journey.
About Johan’s understanding of fear and pity, I would like to quote from Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence :
We pity others for what we fear may happen to ourselves, and those incapable of the one feeling are thus impervious to the other as well.
Reminded me of the games Johan played with children on the rooftop. Aristotel who wrote that pity and fear are intertwined, makes a distinction in between saying :
Pity turns into fear, (…) when its object is so intimate that the suffering seems to be our own. Pressed to a limit, then, the distinction between the two feelings becomes well-nigh undecidable.
The game I mentioned above erases the fear/pity pattern in children, exactly same with the ‘education’ given in 511 Kinderheim. After the treatment in the facility, all that is left for Johan is his twin sister Anna and the weight of his mother’s -possible- confusion brought.
I’ve generally talked about Tenma and Johan but they are not the only focus of Monster. Tenma’s fiancée Eva seems so annoying and total opposite of Tenma but after swearing herself to take revenge she becomes a character that we can sympathize with. Another character we can gradually get used to (but this one always manages to rub you off the wrong way nevertheless) is Detective Lunge. Everytime I see him, a shiver comes down my spine and I cannot help but yell “Aaargh enough, leave my precious Tenma alone already!”. Then there is Grimmer-san, another favourite of mine. Every character can be analyzed thoroughly, participation of the characters into the story are all constructed well and do not stand off in a bad way; we get to know all of them fairly well. Character development is consistent. On a side note, Emil Scherbe’s book Monster without a Name is a very interesting, yet creepy story. I wonder if I can find the book, including the illustrations from anime…
Dietrich & Anna Liebert
As conclusion, if you were to say “Ooiii, cut to the chase and tell us whether you recommend Monster or not!” I would say… no. Jokes aside, Monster is not a show that everyone can warm up immediately in my opinion; plot develops very slowly, is relatively long and the animation is old. If these issues do not rustle your jimmies, if you are searching for a carefully developed story and characters, do no hesitate even for a second.
Notes about this post:
Gucbilmez’s article Tragedy and Lateness, an Onthologic and Epistemologic Approach can be found here, though in Turkish. I did the translations for quotes and I am sincerely sorry if they do not make any sense.
For Eagleton’s Sweet Violence, I used the hard copy I have in English as reference. Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003)
Overall, I have to say I am sorry again. During my last post about Servant x Service, I realised that writing in English first and then translating into Turkish comes out much better. I tried my best with this post, though not satisfied andit was a bit hard because I’m not so much familiar with the terminology of social studies. I’ll do better in the future and thanks for stopping by!