Naoki Urasawa’s horror/thriller manga, Monster, begins as if it’s going to be a medical drama. Dr. Tenma, a talented young surgeon, is working at the Eisler Memorial Hospital in Western Berlin during the mid-80’s. His experiences there are dispiriting, as he finds that the hospital administration takes a mercenary attitude towards the profession, showing favoritism towards high profile patients and research that will make the hospital look good. As the hospital director bluntly puts it to him, “our primary calling is to advance medical research, not to save lives.”
Tenma is soon put to the test when he is about to operate on a young boy called “Johan” with a serious bullet wound and is commanded at the last minute to work on an important benefactor who has just been brought in. He decides to disobey his orders, affirming that all lives are equal. The hospital director isn’t pleased at all, and goes out of his way to sabotage Tenma’s career.
But there are some mysteries surrounding Johan: he was found at a murder scene where his two apparent guardians (recent defectors from the east) were killed, along with a twin sister who is shell-shocked into a near catatonic state. When the boy recovers, he disappears along with his sister and the director, and other important higher ups are found dead. The succeeding administration values Tenma, and gives him a promotion. This attracts the suspicion of eccentric police inspector, Lunge.
The story jumps ahead to 1995, where a chain of events leads Tenma to encounter Johan again. Johan reveals that he was behind the hospital deaths years ago, and that he also is responsible for several murders carried out in the intervening years. This revelation torments Tenma—the patient who was, for him, the spur of his commitment to saving lives at all costs, has turned out to be a monster. When it becomes clear that Johan has connections to the police, and that Tenma himself has become a prime suspect in the killings, he goes on the run, seemingly with the intention of bringing Johan to justice himself.
It’s been a gripping read so far (I’m up to chapter 16)—Urasawa is by far one of the most talented manga artists I’ve come across, with a downright cinematic grip on the medium. There were moments in these early chapters where I just stopped and marveled at a particular page. The first glimpse of Johan as an adult, for instance, is masterful: at the top of the page is a wide panel which has him as a small silhouette behind the figure we’re supposed to be focusing on. It provokes a double-take on the part of the reader that expertly mirrors Tenma suddenly noticing that Johan is already present.
There’s also just the right amount of caricature in the character designs to make things feel uncanny without upsetting the realism of the narrative. Lunge has a slightly birdlike, hawkish look to him, underlining his intense, obsessive police work, while Johan himself unnervingly looks like he belongs in a shoujo romance story.
There’s a lot to thematically take apart in the early chapters, all tying into the central, cruel irony: Tenma is, in essence, asked to choose between the world and his soul, but making the right choice has the unforeseen consequence of allowing a serial killer to continue his spree.
Although we rarely encounter a situation so dramatic, there’s a discouraging sentiment here that we’ve all likely had from time to time: the fear that our good deeds are ineffectual, that the evil of the world just swallows them up.
We don’t live in a world where good and evil are always met with the consequences that seem fitting for them. Paradoxically, the Sermon on the Mount links this with God’s mercy, where the practise of loving your enemy is shown to be modeling how God himself acts towards the wicked: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:44-5) Of course, if good and evil were immediately, karmically met with their just reward, we’d likely all be in trouble. To quote Shakespeare, “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?” If the alternative is a scorched earth, what we have may seem a little more merciful.
But the deeper mystery, and the one which turns this realization from stoic resignation into one of hope is what God does with the evil of the world. The passion and death of Christ, in itself a horrific miscarriage of justice, became the pivot for the salvation of mankind and the means by which God enters into and redeems human suffering. It’s a mystery which can only be entered into through faith; even the most rock-tight rationalizations and theodicies we may have tend to melt away before the face of extreme evil.
It’s still too early for me to have a good grasp of where Monster will take its story—who, or what even is Johan, really? Will these events shatter Tenma’s deeply held moral convictions? At any rate, it’s certainly a provocative read.