“Each man’s death diminishes me.”
Monster is a story about Kenzou Tenma, a brilliant Japanese neurosurgeon living in Germany. He’s being groomed for success by his boss, Dr Heinemann, and he’s engaged to Heinemann’s daughter, Eva. One day, after finishing up in surgery, he’s approached by a distraught woman who angrily asks him why he did not perform surgery on her husband despite him coming in earlier; her husband was passed onto a lesser surgeon and did not survive his procedure. Tenma is troubled by this. Later, a boy named Johann comes in with a head wound sustained from a gunshot; as Tenma is prepping him for surgery, Dr Heinemann calls to inform him that the mayor has just come in for emergency lifesaving surgery, and he’s to pass Johann onto a lesser surgeon to save the mayor. Tenma makes two decisions: no one life is more important than any other and he’s going to save the boy in front of him now. With this, the plot and emotions of the story are set in motion.
Monster is, first and foremost, a story, not a philosophical treatise. Most accurately, I would describe it as a melodrama, in which elements were chosen and then arranged for maximum emotional impact. Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is a good point of comparison; the first season and a half are wildly entertaining, and anyone who has read the series bible knows that it went off the rails right about when they ran out of pre-prepared plot points. BSG was at its best when it weaved together a bunch of highly melodramatic scenes into a clear and entertaining emotional arc. Monster maintains the energy of that first season and a half because it has been sufficiently thought through, and it feels like one intensely powerful scene after another without ever feeling jarring or atonal; the moments of intense joy always feel like they’re in the same universe as the moments of intense horror. My point with all of this being that, while the show has a clear point of view and while that point of view is shared with its hero and even while its hero isn’t exactly afraid to share his views, those views are almost exclusively presented through feeling and through incident.
What I have described above is only half of the premise. After Tenma successfully saves the boy, he prepares himself for the consequences; the Mayor has died in surgery, his boss has demoted him and vowed to never allow him to advance his career again, and to top things off his fiancee has left him. As Tenma watches over the sleeping boy, he has a moment of anger and rambles to himself about the stupidity and immorality of his superiors, climaxing by wishing they were dead. He then takes solace in the Goodness of what he’s done, wishes the boy a good life, and leaves the hospital to get good and drunk. That same night, Tenma’s boss and the two toadies he’d collected and put in positions of power are murdered with poison candies – and Johann has vanished. Nine years later, Tenma has long returned to his position as head of neurosurgery and been enjoying much the same lifestyle as before with more clarity – though he turned down Eva after she tried reaching out to him after her father’s murder and has largely remained single due to his all-consuming interest in his work.
One day, he’s treating a thief, Junkers, who suffered a severe head injury while on the job. His process of treating him – burying him under kindness and joy – leads to Junkers revealing that he and his crew were hired by someone who is now systematically killing all of them, with Junkers the last one left. He describes this person as a monster. Tenma ends up finding Junkers and the monster in a parking garage; the monster reveals himself as Johann, the boy Tenma treated all those years ago. Johann reveals that he was the one who murdered Tenma’s boss as a way of paying him back for saving his life – as well as Junkers’s crew and several other people that night – and he casually murders Junkers and walks off into the night. Tenma returns to the hospital and finds that the detective who suspected him of the murders nine years ago has good reason to suspect him of the murders committed that night. Tenma decides he was responsible for everything Johann has done, vows to kill him, and flees into the night. We jump forward a few months to find Tenma hitchhiking, clutching a pistol in his pocket, and hoping like hell that nobody recognises him from his photo in the newspapers.
As you can guess, this is a violent story, made more violent by the fact that Tenma is now a criminal doctor and often used by violent criminals to treat wounds caused by violence. It does not, however, ever present violence as anything other than a gruesome violation. The show is an adaptation of a comic by Naoki Urusawa, and it’s an incredibly loyal one – not just to the plot and text, although it is that, but to Urusawa’s very peculiar and individual art style. He’s famous for drawing characters who all look unique no matter their role in the story – of all the animated works I’ve seen, only The Simpsons matches Monster for diversity of character visuals, and it achieves it in a very different way. This is one of the rare Japanese animations where the white people look not only white, but European; there are a lot of round faces and facial features, and it even dives into Turkish minority groups. But on top of that, Urusawa has the ability to lay an emotion onto his characters. I can’t describe what he does, only what I feel: people who are committing evil look evil, and people who commit good look good. I find myself thinking of Roald Dahl’s remark that people who think good thoughts will radiate them no matter how crooked their teeth or pudgy their face, whilst people who think evil thoughts radiate their vileness. This ends up playing into the emotional arc of the show.
Tenma’s boss radiates evil. Even before he betrays Tenma, as he describes his views that hospitals ought to focus on advancing scientific knowledge over treating patients and casually gets his workers to do his job for him, the animators draw him with an uncanniness that makes him look vaguely demonic. When he verbally beats down Tenma and sadistically taunts him with the hopelessness of advancing his career, his face has the quality of the devil smugly coming to make good on his deal. Nevertheless, when we see his dead body, it looks positively ghoulish. It isn’t just that he seems to have suffered pain, horror, and shock; it’s that seeing a dead body at all is actively traumatising to us as viewers. His dead body looks Wrong. This carries over into the rest of the series. Everyone who plans on committing violence has an abhorrent expression on their face. Every act of violence is traumatic. Every dead body and broken bone is a violation. Conversely – necessarily – there are inherently good acts as well. The sharing of food is a good act; this has a Ghibli-esque presentation of food and the way it’s eaten. Sports are inherently good. The creation of art isn’t inherently good – part of the plot depends on an evil children’s book – but it’s pretty damn close; there are painters, writers, and puppeteers, although my favourite example is the ‘professional readers’ a blind man hires to read books to him, who are explicitly judged on their skills at conveying the text.
The cumulative effect is that actions are inherently good or evil but people are not. This story is willing to judge its characters – and they can do things that range from awful to heinous – but it is never ever going to reward or punish them. It will never get in their way. In the worldview of Monster, there is an inherent nobility in a living human being that no amount of evil they commit will ever affect, and sometimes that nobility is awake and sometimes it’s asleep. There’s a scene in which Tenma, his boy sidekick, his thief friend, the criminal boss Tenma just performed surgery on, and the boss’s bodyguard all eat a meal together; the boss realises how long it’s been since he enjoyed a meal with anyone and we see that humanity flickering awake. One of my favourite episodes concerns a side character visiting a man who turn out to be a former hitman, now living as a cafe owner; he tells the story of his last hit, in which he witnessed his target pouring an absurd amount of sugar into his coffee before enjoying it, and found himself so moved by this display of peculiar humanity that he couldn’t kill again.
And most of all, there’s the story of Eva. She’s presented as nothing more and nothing less than a shallow, spoiled princess; she abandoned Tenma in the first place because she felt he couldn’t provide her with the rich, high-class lifestyle she felt entitled to, and she did it without a drop of empathy. When he rejects her, she becomes obsessed with him; she gradually loses all her money and possessions as she falls into alcohol addiction and never lifts a finger to learn any skills or improve her situation. But the very fact that a story is being told about her elevates her (“[She] too is God’s handiwork.”). However incompetent she is about going about it, she is driven by love. One episode follows her as she sparks a romance with her gardener maintaining her property (yet another artist committing an inherent good in creating beauty for its own sake); it ends with her going to visit him, only to realise his ex-wife has come home, and in her rage she burns her home to the ground and vows revenge on Tenma. This isn’t played as a condemnation of Eva; it’s played as an awful situation.
Eva is the character I find tends to baffle most viewers, particularly young male anime fans (actually, in general I notice most of the characters baffle even the people who like the show). I think it’s because they expect retribution for injustice, and this decoupling of the moral weight of action from the basic humanity of the person who commits it confuses them (I am aware I’m veering dangerously close to ‘they just don’t get it, maaaaan’, but… you know what, fuck it, that’s exactly what I’m saying). This is not a narrative that thinks about people in that way – there is no sense of satisfaction in revenge. This is truly a mental landscape where deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. I’ve been reading about restorative justice for about a year now (mostly in connection to prison abolition), so even if I feel it’s articulating thoughts I’ve had my whole life, I won’t pretend to be an expert on it. But one recurring thing I’ve noticed is that abolitionists are very, very good at articulating practical reasons for restorative justice over retributive (the lower recidivism rates of, say, Finnish or Swedish prisons that are focused on rehabilitation and look very comfortable), pretty good at tying these beliefs into a larger spiritual context (with many of them tying restorative justice into Indigenous belief systems and elements of retributive justice like the LAPD into slavecatchers and the KKK), and embarrassingly incompetent at giving real, active, emotional reasons for believing in restorative justice that equal or surpass the emotional satisfaction of retribution. This is most obvious when it comes to the ‘what about the rapists?’ question.
One of the big plot elements of Monster is 511 Kinderheim, an orphanage that was part of a larger conspiracy in which brutal psychological and physical experiments were performed on orphan boys in the hopes of churning out stronger citizens. It’s very evocative of real-life experiments and institutions that created a generation of trauma; Tenma discovers it because Johann was there as a child, and it’s initially presented as a possible explanation for his Evil before it becomes clear that he was that way long before he ever came to 511. But Grimmer, a survivor of 511 (one who left long before Johann got there) becomes a side character, and he finds a teacher who also survived; this teacher is completely unrepentant, justifying his brutal history as an experiment in child-rearing, insisting that it was completely successful, and indifferent to the pain, misery, and trauma he’s passed onto Grimmer. Grimmer discovers that the teacher is running an orphanage now, and believes to his horror that he’s starting the experiment all over again. The twist is that he’s half-right – having gathered sufficient evidence on what evil does to a child, the teacher switching up his methodology and using nothing but love. This isn’t out of the goodness of his heart or because he’s changed his ways or is redeeming himself; he simply sees it as an extension of his life’s work. To his dying breath, he insists that it was all an experiment.
Take away the abstractions of the situation. Take away that the teacher is a representation of not just one particular institution but institutions everywhere that used and abused people. Take away his motivations. Take away the history. What we have is a man, right now, showering boys with love, devotion, and support. Murdering this man – and he does, in fact, get murdered – means somebody stops doing that. For as long as we’re alive, we can continue to create things, including love and evil. The most common retort to restorative justice and prison abolition is ‘what about the rapists?’. Some proponents will dismiss the question entirely without explanation. Some will bring up statistics about the effectiveness of restorative justice methods at preventing future crime than retributive justice (convincingly, to my mind, but not in an emotionally resonant way). Some will wave their hands vaguely at the idea of human nature and that a rapist will obviously learn the error of their ways given sufficient education (naively, to my mind, and the weak rhetoric that comes from them not just coming out and saying that weakens the emotional resonance). None of them, at least in my limited experience, will explicitly extrapolate on what is an implicit constant in Monster: no matter what a person has done, they are not evil. No matter what a person has done, killing them is evil.
I’m not naïve about the practicalities of trying to live out this morality, let alone trying to build institutions around it, and neither is the show. Almost all of the characters who have committed the most evil end up murdered at some point because they actions they committed were simply too big to be contained, and quite a few characters will continue to commit crimes both petty and major because they’ve learned nothing; it doesn’t focus much attention on this, but it sketches out enough larger systems generating evil and has no illusions about them surviving the story. Tenma always finds satisfaction enough in articulating his own morality and as no interest in the broader scope of the world he operates in; I think I can get at least halfway there. If he successfully changes people’s minds and brings them around to his way of thinking, it’s only because he’s so committed to his outlook that they’re impressed by him than because of the power of his rhetoric; more often than not, he collects people who already at least mostly agree with him or support his larger goals, or want to protect him in a general sense. This feels true. Monster is not a propaganda piece and it’s not even a manifesto of a particular set of beliefs. Rather, it’s a demonstration that this viewpoint exists. It’s a source of comfort to its adherents and a warning to its opponents.