You Should Be Reading: Naoki Urasawa's Monster - Part 1 (Perfect Edition Volumes 1 - 3)

I never thought I would be writing that you’re lucky if you haven’t already read Monster, but there it is. Naoki Urasawa’s psychological thriller tour de force isn’t new by any means, and already has a large and loyal following in the manga community. But for readers who haven’t experienced Monster, now is a perfect (no pun intended) time, with Viz Media’s Perfect Edition of two-in-one volumes being released every three months. With a new volume coming out this week, beginning the last third of the run, here’s why you should be catching up on this suspenseful epic.

The Lowdown

Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese neurosurgeon living and working in pre-reunification Germany, has a bright future ahead of him. He’s the most talented doctor at his prestigious research hospital, the favorite of the director to become head of neurosurgery, and even engaged to the director’s beautiful daughter, Eva. However, Tenma realizes that the people around him may care more about politics and personal gain than saving lives. The young doctor begins to question the path that has been set for him despite the risk it runs to his future success. When he makes the decision to help a young boy who has been critically wounded instead of performing surgery on a politician, the course of his life is changed forever.

Who Is It For?

Fans of seinen manga with dark undertones will feel right at home withMonster, but anyone who enjoys suspense, mystery, and psychological thrillers will find a lot to love. Even if you don’t normally like these genres, there’s plenty of subtle character drama to make Monster worth taking a chance on.

The best way I can describe what it’s like reading Monster is that it’s the closest thing to a Netflix binge or burning through a fantastic mystery novel in one night. It is, bar none, the most un-put-down-able manga series I’ve ever read.

How Was It?

From the outset, Dr. Kenzo Tenma is an extremely likable guy and sympathetic character. The corrupt people in his life - the hospital’s director, Dr. Heinemann, Eva Heinemann, and some Tenma’s doctor peers - are painted as morally reprehensible. This seemingly black and white, good vs. evil setup is actually successful, because it lays the groundwork for some wonderful subversion later on that makes the reader constantly question their assumptions about the characters.

Monster’s notorious villain, Johan Liebert, is introduced to the story in a tragically ironic way. The apparent lone survivor of the massacre of his family, a mortally wounded Johan is taken to Dr. Tenma’s hospital on the same night that the mayor of Dusseldorf is rushed to the emergency room. Tenma, knowing he is the only doctor capable of performing the delicate surgery to save Johan’s life, goes against hospital politics to treat the boy. This decision changes Tenma’s life. He finds his resolve to commit himself to saving lives no matter the cost, but it’s also the event that links the young doctor’s destiny with a terrifying monster - the angelic but terrifying sociopath Johan. When a terrible crime again clears the road to a shining career for Tenma, he realizes with horror that the young boy is more than he seems. The twist of fate that gave Dr. Tenma the wake up call he needed is also one that will endanger the lives of countless others. Now Tenma must track down Johan while on the run, having been framed for Johan’s crimes. These captivating opening chapters provide the understanding for why Tenma is such a tortured man for the rest of the series.

Running parallel to Tenma’s journey to seek redemption is the story of Nina Fortner, a beautiful and bright young woman who seeks answers to her dark past and identity. Nina is an equally compelling lead character as Tenma, whether they’re working alone or together.

Monster has a huge cast, so it’s hard to pin just a few characters down as being the “main cast,” but rounding out Dr. Tenma and Nina is the freakishly dedicated Inspector Lunge, the detective assigned to arrest the fugitive Tenma. Lunge’s unyielding belief in his own conception of justice and Tenma’s guilt gives the two men a dynamic very similar to Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables, which fits Monster’s themes of redemption.

The race against time to find Johan and to clear Tenma’s name is fraught with danger, suspense, and often tragedy. Urasawa has an unmatched skill for imbuing his story with a creeping sense of dread. His characterization of Johan successfully balances showing us how terrifying he is with keeping him a mystery. We’re shown disturbing details from his past, including an East German orphanage that was accused of human experimentation on children. But even with this insight, Johan always remains a few, horrifying steps ahead. The world of Monster, though not short on human kindness and warmth, is full of paranoia and betrayal. Even in chapters that run closer to slice of life, you may find yourself on the edge of your seat, waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

Final Thoughts

Monster is full of some of the most thrilling suspense and drama I’ve come across in manga, but in the end it’s not what makes the series so special. Ultimately, Monster is about characters. Naoki Urasawa has created a living, breathing world populated by characters from all walks of life, each with their own (often touching) life story and motivations. He manages to make each and every one, even the villains, compelling and usually sympathetic. In Tenma, Nina, and the others’ chase across Germany and Eastern Europe, we’re shown again and again that Tenma’s commitment to human life is worth it, and that everyone has a story worth listening to. By volume 3, we’re given more than enough reasons to be attached to the main characters and story, and a few of the most exciting and heartbreaking arcs of the series are being set up. But that’s enough talk. Start your own Monster journey!

The original print of Monster was published by Viz Media in 18 volumes between February of 2006 and December of 2008. Both story and art are by Naoki Urasawa. The two-in-one Perfect Edition of the series is currently being released with a new volume every three months. Monster received an anime adaptation by Madhouse in 2004. 

Translator: Camellia Nieh

Author: Naoki Urasawa

Publisher: Viz Media