The Devil and Johan Liebert

In a German Expressionist world of dark ivy, sinister alleys and creepy children books, Inspector Lunge is a somewhat vampire-resembling, workaholic police detective. He has a very good memory, a well-seated respect for the facts, and a sense of legalism that would give Inspector Jauvert pause. And now, he is now obsessed with a case of serial murder, and his prime suspect is a brilliant and melancholic Japanese surgeon, Dr. Tenma, who is on the run.

The suspect, however, insists that the killer or instigator of all those murders is a certain Johan Liebert, a young and attractive psychopath he once treated, with a gift for fascinating and manipulating others. That he has a great plan to set the world aflame and just watch it burn. As authorities don’t believe him (and for… other reasons, maybe), Tenma is personally chasing Liebert. Lunge, in turn restlessly pursuing the doctor, explains Liebert away as giving excuses or having a split personality. But in time, that explanation fits less and less. “And slowly/ you come to realize…” Johan is very real.

Welcome to Naoki Urasawa’s adaptation of Monster.

Kenzo Tenma is an honest and simple-minded, yet tormented doctor whose deepest belief is that human life is inherently valuable. Being faithful to that one principle has cost him his career and his engagement. At the last moment, he disregarded the instructions of the greedy director of his hospital and followed the protocol instead to treat a child who came first instead of a Major, who came in second. But, as it turns out, by his costly disobedience he may have saved an Antichrist figure, an existential Voldemort who instills abject terror in the hearts of the few who know his deeds, even if they are hardened criminals. “A monster is coming.”

Monster is a show about evil, the greatest evil the author can think of. With all sorts of Christian, Buddhist, mythical Japanese, Grimm fairy tale-esque, and historical evil imagined, and with his East Germany post-separation context referencing the Communist and the Nazi regimes, Johan Liebert is certainly a memorable villain.

Episode after episode, we come to see his many faces. He is at once a serial murderer like the Zodiac Killer or Jack the Ripper, a Joker-like existential psychopath, a Lord of the Flies instigator of senseless violence, a Kingpin manipulating the institutions and the police, an attractive and deadly vampire-like corrupter, and a Rosemary’s Baby figure, evil from childhood and destined to do apocalyptic and dreadful things.

A monster is coming.

And, of course, his innocent, angelic appearance, with blond hair and blue eyes, reminds us of the angels and Lucifer, intelligent and powerful beings, full of heavenly beauty. It seems almost unfair to make poor Dr. Tenma his foil. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it?

I have yet to finish this show, though, and I don’t even know if I will. Some time ago, commenting on a post by our writer MDMRN, I told the story of how I was fascinated by villains as a child. I found that there was something about the imaginery of the Greek Hades, of Disney villains, of Slytherin, of Dragonlance’s Raistlin or Sauron and the Nâzgul that really got to me.

I liked horror stories, dark imaginery and smart, clever, elegant, sarcastic, tormented or manipulative villains, I was prone to dark humor, too, which may (or may not) have had to do with my social awkwardness at the time. These days, I’m much less patient with the likes of Kira and Johan Liebert. I tend to prefer portraits of evil that hit closer to home, and the likes of Lain, Higurashi, Bokurano or Mononoke for my horror anime.

And for some reason, I’ll confess that Dr. Tenma bothers me a bit, too. Come on, man. You just cannot promise with solemn conviction that tomorrow will be a good day. How in the world would you know that? Who would believe that you do? From the beginning, he seems so surprised that evil even exists. The narrative has to do all sorts of sentimental and unlikely things to keep his fragile existential optimism afloat, and as for now, it manages to do it just barely.

Our protagonist is afraid to “look to the heart of his own mind,” fearing that Johan may be right. As for now, we are in the confused world of, say, Blood Blockade Battlefront, and not in the one of, say, Now and then, here and there.

On the other hand, I find the aesthetics of Monster appealing. I retain some of that “dark” sensibility of my teen years. We live in a deep world, always in movement, full of terrifying and joyful things, under a God that is both all-loving and “mighty and terrible,” and there is wisdom in acknowledging that. God created the day and the night, the tempests and the sunsets, the abysses and the star, the thrills, the horrors and the wonders.

As the book of Job puts it, the morning stars which sang in chorus while the angels shouted with joy, and the depths of the dark, terrible, indomitable Leviathan, of whom the mighty are afraid (probably, the great, powerful whale). We’re all different, and it’s well that different parts of the same Creation should appeal to each heart. Fumikage Tokoyami is as heroic as the rest of his UA class, with the same calling. But all that God created was good. Darkness is not evil. Evil comes from us.

I do despise evil. Not evil people, not madness, not deviancy, not darkness, not even psychopathy (or at least I try), but evil in myself and the world. Corruption in the soul akin to that of a dead body, deaf injustice, lust, violence, envy, acedia, the sad self-deception of pride, cold and unloving ways where there could be fire, harmful to the evildoer and to others. A loveless void in a place where there should be love and meaning.

Johan Liebert is (spoilers for the first half of Monster or so ahead) an existential threat for many of the characters of Monster. For me (I grew up reading Batman comics), he is a particularly clever bully and a deranged individual, not to speak of a walking curse for his very vulnerable and hurt sister, when, with his gifts, he could be a great blessing. But I have realized that Tenma and others see their own monsters, their own voids, in him. Through the story of the “monster with no name,” we come to see that he, too, is traumatized, very unstable and not always in control, obsessively trying to fill a void which is only partly of his own making.

Even if he acts the part, even if he is embedded in his imaginery, Johan is not Satan.

There are some parallels, though. To start with the obvious one, Johan is real. The evil we see is, for the most part, done by free agents other than him, but he has influenced them according to an unified design, his plan. The being we call Satan is also personal and real. He is not just a metaphor of sin or evil, or his interventions only symptons of natural illnesses or disorders. Inspector Lunge’s global vision of the case works better with Johann being a cypher or a symptom of that sort. But there is a personal agent there, with his own plans, separated from the other suspects.

Even if he acts the part, even if he is embedded in his imaginery, Johan is not Satan.

Sure, he sounds somehow unlikely or bizarre, but he is real, and acknowledging that with a sober mind is necessary to solve the case and counter his criminal plan. If we accept what the gospel tells us as true, we must likewise alter our vision of the universe to make room for such beings as personal angels and demons who tempt us, think and act, and sometimes act in extraordinary ways, affecting the physical world, as in possessions which are healed by Christ’s exorcisms. We will make better sense of God’s world if we live in the truth, as fully as possible.

Monster reminds us that part of the power of evil is that it hides its name. Johan is Johan, Satan is Satan, devils are devils, and sin is sin. Our Lord frequently commands the devils he expels to say their names. To confess our sins and put them in Christ’s hands is the way He will deliver us from evil.

That points us to a second common feature. Liebert sometimes incarnates their own nameless monster, the worst version of themselves, controlled by the hungry void of cold, disordered appetites. I think Johan affects Tenma in such a way because he witnessed Tenma verbally betraying his ideals (when he thought the child was unconscious), and wishing for the death of those who had offended him, a wish he turned real.

Similarly, Satan has an intimate knowledge of our own evils, because he has participated and participates in them by means of temptation, and tries to use them to destroy us by an unrepentant or despairing fall into sin. Thus, St. Paul calls Satan “the Accuser” of Christians.

In a loveless world, a powerful and loveless man of great power can use the cracks and the voids present everywhere in his favor, and so Johan seems unreachable and all-powerful, manipulating everything and everyone. His knowledge of people’s desires, his powers of fascination and deduction and his perfect facade, coupled with his lack of moral barriers, make him the ruler of the violent, a concept literalized when he sees the hellish results of his manipulation from a high place at Kinderheim 511.

For similar reasons (a powerful intellect, an intimate knowledge of our flaws, the importance and influence of sin at the heart of human beings and institutions), Satan is called the “prince of this world,” arranging, for example, the execution of Christ through temptation and manipulation. But it should also be noted that Johan cultivates his hellish persona as a tool for terrifying others, and particularly our protagonist.

He is, after all, a bully, and all that has happened to this point could be interpreted as his attempt to bully Nina and Tenma out of their more hopeful visions of the world. He is not in control of everything. And neither is Satan. This is God’s world. Kinderheim 511 may bring to mind Satan looking at Hell, but we should remember that Satan is as defeated, as damned and as stepped in the painful fire of love rejected as the rest of those who made the same choice.

Our Lord uses the signs of his exorcist power to proof that He is indeed stronger than Satan. In this respect, He notes how nobody “can enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man.” Satan is powerless before Christ and his Apostles in union with Him, before innocence, obedience and faith. Patience, union with Christ and his Father, prayer and fasting can and will defeat him. In fact, he is only in control of a very distorted, partial version of our reality, and powerless in the long term.

So it would be a mistake to become obsessed with Satan, or to fear him excessively, or to play into his games, or to speak directly to him outside the expulsion itself. In Monster, we see the results of playing into Johan’s plans. As Alfred said of the Joker, he wins if he makes you think like him. The narrative twists I mentioned are (I think) signs that Monster‘s author is on Tenma’s side, and that he will prevail. The advice of the Apostle Peter concerning Satan is this: “Be sober-minded; be watchful”. No panic, no harshness. Christ speaks of Satan matter-of-factly.

Come on, Dr. Tenma. You got this.

[Satan] is only in control of a very distorted, partial version of our reality, and powerless in the long term.

Just as the rest of Johan’s actions are instrumental to his attempt to influence Tenma, Nina, and maybe some others, temptation is the first, most central and worst action of Satan. His more theatrical displays of evil (possessions and the like) are external phenomena meant to instill fear and despair, and not as relevant as his attempts to make us participate voluntarily in our own destruction, the only true destruction. Temptation is what St. Paul is describing when he says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

In the gospels, possession is not a natural illness (because it is of supernatural origin), but something that can happen to innocent people, especially if they participate in pagan ceremonies or invocations, and which work through either periodical attacks or a constant state which resembles madness, is external to the will of the subject and that can be healed by prayer and fasting, and by the command of Christ and His disciples. That is just an instance and a foretaste of God’s salvation, like healing the blind. Our greater enemy is still inside us. We, ourselves, when, tempted by pleasure or pain, we choose to devour a name, a self-made sinful identity, instead of hoping that God will give us one.

The relationship between Johan and his most brainwashed accomplices (as for now) illustrates another aspect of Satan’s rule. You may realize that I have been speaking as though there was only one devil, though the gospel explicitly depicts a plurality (even a legion) of devils or demons, that is, of fallen angels. That is because, in a system of loveless power, the most powerful tyrannizes and manipulates the rest so all their actions are at his service, effectively nullifying them. As our Lord notes when accused of casting out demons with the power of the prince of demons, things just don’t work that way down there.

The lack of love at the center, love being the unifying principle of reality and personhood in this world, means another thing. Johan looks like the forerunner of a hidden and terrible truth, the door to a new and strange world, just as the serpent and Eden pointed to a fruit which seemed good to eat, and desirable to acquire wisdom, to be like gods, above good and evil. But for those inside, is nothing like that. You’re just nullified, and then you are destroyed. That’s why he is called the Prince of Lies, and especially associated with lying.

From the gospel and the experience of the saints, we see that Satan and his people are in essence psychological and spiritual (and sometimes physical) bullies, vulgar, intrusive, attacking faith, hope, love and self-esteem, and deluding others to think high of themselves as an abusive seducer would do. The true nature of such beings is on display when they possess a herd of pigs and lead them to destruction. They are bizarre and gross, and all sympathy or originality is pure pretense.

Johan is increasingly becoming such a being, but in his case, maybe not all is lost. Am I crazy to see some seed of hope down there, if Tenma was able to call his nemesis by his true name?

Before Satan, in Gethsemane and the desert, our Lord looks a bit like Dr. Tenma, human, battered, hungry and fragile, concerned with taking care of everyone, healing, doing good. It seems unlikely in a world where sin, death and the devil have so much power. But He is in control. His bond with his Father is strong. He has a plan, and he is the strongest. Clinging to Him, fighting with Him, will see at the endgame his powerful love delivering us from this bullying, from our enemies, from evil. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

As St. Paul says, “Do you not know that we judge the Angels?” Evil and its lies will fall, even if the strongest and wisest on Earth and Hell may be on their side. And, if we are in Christ, we will stand. The One who saves is immensely greater than the one who kills.

Monster can be streamed at Amazon Prime Video.

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