Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Monsters Among Us

What do you do if you save the life of someone who goes on to wreak great evil?

With the tagline: 'The choice you make, the price you pay.', I have been reading the manga Monster by Naoki Urasawa.

I cannot recommend this title enough. It is one of those sorts of stories that doesn't have to be told as a manga (comic) but is absolutely awesome in that medium. There are no giant robots, no superheroes, no psychic powers. This could just as easily been a made-for-TV movie... and in its plot essentials it probably has been.

Set in the mid-80's it's the story of a peerless surgeon, Dr Tenma, who has moved from Japan to practice medicine in Germany. Tenma is talented, kind-hearted, and got into medicine to help people regardless of race, social standing, or the ability to pay. Starting out as a cynical (if somewhat exaggerated) story of hospital politics, Tenma's world comes crashing down when a young boy he saved on the operating table turns out to be a serial killer. And I don't mean 'turns out be' in a few years. I mean, right away. So Tenma's career, conscience, and everything else is in jeopardy as he tries to exact some kind of answer or justice from his situation.

The manga format allows this story to be told in a detailed expansive way that no film would be able to duplicate. Print novels or lengthy anime series could perhaps do it... and of course there has been an anime series which I understand is very good in its own right. But this is the original vision.

In typical manga (or anime) fashion much of the drama is played broadly and 'overacted' in the sense of everything being super-urgent, super-dreadful, or super-tense. Part of that owes to the fact that the chapters in manga books (tankoubon in Japanese) are read one after the other, but in their original print run were serialised weeks apart. So when it looks like characters are reacting as if every chapter is some emotional climax it owes to the cliffhanger nature of the weekly or monthly manga installments. There are eighteen volumes in the series (of which I've read five up to the point of this writing).

Apart from the melodrama, this is a tale for anyone who likes their suspense and plot twists served up in heavy doses. Obviously to justify a tale spanning eighteen paperback book sized volumes there's more to it than just 'doctor tracks down serial killer'. There's a lot of bigger 'conspiracy' things going on, and a lot of sideplots involving the various characters. But all of it is interesting, and almost all of it is directly relevant to the main plot.

Unlike something like Death Note, this manga is pretty well grounded in reality. These are all realistic people, in real towns, doing real things. The plot, with all its twists is not as complicated as Death Note, but the characters are also much more believable. Don't get me wrong, I liked Death Note just fine, but it was peopled by the kind of uber-minds that only exist in fiction... not to mention the supernatural Shinagami themselves. Monster is cast with people you could know in any house or on any street corner... er, if you lived in Germany.

I'm compelled to finish this manga before embarking on the anime. I easily enjoy manga as much as I do any other medium, and I'd like to soak in the creator's unadulterated vision for this thing. It has become fairly common for anime based on suspense-heavy sources to change events or endings from their originals to keep the viewer guessing. If you've watched the live-action Death Note films you know what I'm talking about. It would take A LOT of the steam out of a Monster anime to know all the plot points coming up because you read the manga, so it will be interesting to see how they handle this. Of course I have to avoid all online plot summaries and such at all costs. Spoilers would kill anything having to do with this story!

If you can put up with a lot of dramatic shouting, don't walk, run to pick up this series. What a great change of pace from all the other monsters in comics and movies.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man, I'm reading 20th Century Boys, by the same author (Naoki Urasawa) and it is fantastic. I was thinking, "Hey wait, didn't Kog talk about something else by him?" and I've decided after I finish 20th Century Boys I'll read Monster.

    The manga set up is a lot better for mysteries, I find. You should definitely read that when you're done this. :D