Manga Review: Monster (Naoki Urasawa)

Title: MONSTER
Author: Naoki Urasawa
Publisher: Shogakukan
Published: 1994 – 2001
Length: 18 Volumes


The story goes that Naoki Urasawa toyed with penning a manga set in the medical field early in his career, but met resistance from his editor. Now, almost two decades since Monster concluded, it’s clear to see it was not only – against his editor’s predictions – a landmark work for Urasawa in terms of popularity, but also served as the first manga in a formula that has since become the author’s forte.

Monster is the case of Kenzo Tenma, a brain surgeon whose child patient disappears amongst suspicious circumstances, only to resurface years later as an enigmatic serial killer who frames Tenma. The doctor turned vigilante detective must evade the police while tracking the real killer, which takes him across Europe, where he uncovers a thread of decades old villainy dating back to the Cold War.

It’s a sweeping narrative with a structure that is consistent in arguably all of Urasawa’s major serial work since. His winning plot formula spans decades, locations, perspectives, and generations, is based partly in history, is loaded with conspiracies and clever misdirection, and boasts an enormous supporting cast, with central characters which often trade places.

The extent of Urasawa’s research and planning is clear. For a story with so many threads, it seldom loses its way. His artwork effortlessly guides the reader through involved set pieces, which often unfold from several angles. His style is cinematic, communicating movement and cuts through expert panel arrangement and combined action-reaction shots.

American TV show The Fugitive was purportedly a strong influence on Monster, and I would argue not only in concept and tone. The author’s pace and artwork embody the fluency and rhythm of continuity editing – it’s easy to imagine Urasawa’s characters and settings in motion, with the author illustrating location with an astute sense of depth. The artwork itself isn’t as intricate as something you might see from the author’s contemporaries, such as Jiro Taniguchi or Nobuyuki Fukumoto – in fact, there are very few page spreads, let alone double spreads – but its finest qualities lie in its seamless ability to capture and enrapture the reader into another world.

This expert blend is what makes an Urasawa story so enjoyable to follow, yet for all the painstaking planning and brilliant drama, there are aspects which are a little coarse. The story itself is a complex blend of multi-narrative drama that is thrilling and expertly woven, but for a story of such impressive scope, the conclusion feels somewhat abrupt. Though, among Urasawa’s most renowned work, Monster is certainly not the worst offender in this regard.

The exposition is at times heavy-handed and too direct – perhaps a symptom of the author’s extensive groundwork – sometimes he’s too keen to chaperone readers. There are many panels where the artwork alone would have left a stronger impression than the accompanying dialogue, especially given Urasawa is excellent at drawing expression and reaction.

Urasawa’s characterisation ranges from noteworthy to lacking. Come the end, many of the supporting characters feel distinguished and important to the wider plot, and the author builds well to exciting character meetings and confrontations, but some are too narrowly bound by their framework. Central character Tenma is a good hero that you enjoy rooting for, but you know – contrary to his monologue – he’s never really going to kill the antagonist, or anyone for that matter. Urasawa’s protagonists have this unwavering moral compass that saps a lot of tension from key scenes.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the ambiguity surrounding the antagonist Johan is gripping, and Urasawa plays well with subversion, knowing exactly when and how to tease key details, but his dialogue and spectre-like appearances become monotonous, with eventual revelations that are only half as fulfilling as the journey there. To this day, the character has a certain prestige among manga villains, but I think Urasawa has done better since with Tomodachi and The Bat in his subsequent works.

For a seinen manga, I would expect characters a little less straight-edged, though, as a counter point – even somewhat archetypal – Monster’s supporting characters are rarely tedious or uniform. Furthermore, that the author can swap out the central character for what would have been months at the time of its serialisation, and yet maintain the same level of tempo in the plot and intrigue from readers is very commendable.

There is an undeniable well-roundedness to Monster. The lesser parts in no way detract from the author’s expert storytelling, which has only gotten bolder since. Urasawa’s preferred thematic structure, with his impressive mixture of location and character, shape his work with a certain global and effective quality that is uniquely his own. Monster, while not as spectacular as 20th Century Boys, or as playful as Billy Bat, or as concise as Pluto, nonetheless presents its own allure as the definitive work among Urasawa’s mystery fiction, skilfully comprising all that makes his manga so compelling.

Manga Review: Billy Bat (Naoki Urasawa)

Title: Billy Bat
Author: Naoki Urasawa (Story and Art), Takashi Nagasaki (Story)
Publisher: Kodansha
Published: 2008 – 2016
Length: 20 Volumes


Billy Bat is an intricately woven mystery-thriller; it’s a manga where twists and turns are around every corner and one which you will have to invest quite a bit of time into before any kind of revelation or payoff, but my is it gripping.

We begin with Kevin Yamagata; a Japanese-American cartoonist whose series Billy Bat – which follows the adventures of an anthropomorphic bat detective – is published by the reputable Marble Comics and adored throughout America. However, by chance Kevin learns of a manga which features a similar protagonist to his in Japan. Realising he may have unconsciously plagiarised the character whilst in Japan some years prior, he travels there hoping to meet with the author, but what he discovers is a web of conspiracies, murder, cover-ups and betrayal which all seemingly lead back to his bat character. Before long, however, it becomes evident that Billy Bat is something far beyond Kevin, as he’s whisked into a mystery surrounding the bat’s inception millennia ago and how – since the beginning of time – it has influenced history.

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‘Begin with’ is an opportune phrase as – while Kevin is the protagonist – like much of Naoki Urasawa’s work, the cast is impressively extensive, with Urasawa dipping in and out of different time periods and into the minds of numerous characters. The story is sinuous to say the least, but following it is never a chore. Urasawa nails the pacing, with much of the latter content split into story arcs which usually consist of eight chapters (one complete tankobon). As a manga which portrays no less than fifteen different time periods – ranging from the 1st century to the 21st – it rarely comes across as confusing or disjointed, with Urasawa utilising sublime, almost cinematic transitions, along with many familiar faces in the form of characters based on real-life historical figures, which many readers will be able to pinpoint.

These characters – along with the inclusion of many real-life incidents, such the the Shimoyama affair, the JFK assassination, the falling of the Berlin Wall and even the 9/11 attacks – make the series feel as though it’s grounded in reality. Billy Bat has a certain familiarity about it; it’s an evocative series which balances fiction and non-fiction well, all the while displaying just how much planning and preparation Naoki Uraswawa and Takashi Nagasaki have put into the story.

It does require a certain amount of patience, however. Much like in 20th Century Boys – one of the authors’ previous series – a hundred and one questions are proffered before only a handful are answered. Urasawa grips readers with frequent twists and startling cliffhangers at the end of every chapter – the story itself never sours – but readers of an impatient disposition may encounter some frustration with how long certain questions are held in limbo.

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The characterisation is phenomenal, with both the fictional and non-fiction based characters portrayed immeasurably. Certain characters are more well-rounded than others, but for such a huge cast, Urasawa works wonders. I’m delighted to say, both the protagonists and antagonists are superbly crafted; with a heart, a soul, emotions and clear motivations. It’s especially great to see the more villainous characters looked after, so to speak. One dimensional characters can cause a story to fall so utterly flat, but Urasawa deserves much praise. He has created a multitude of level-headed, layered, intelligent, intriguing, well-written, well-implemented characters sure to leave an impression.

Urasawa’s handiwork continues in the art, which rarely misses the mark. Certain panels could do with a little more detail, but all-in-all, the characters are appropriately differentiated and well-drawn, the backgrounds are stunningly detailed – especially in the page spreads – and, as before, Urasawa’s use of transitions from one scene to the next is second to none. Urasawa utilises a different style for the comic-in-a-comic sequences of Billy Bat – it’s more cartoonish and Americanised – which works exceedingly well and adds yet another flavour to an already appetising manga. The flow of his artwork and panel placement is admirable, with the dramatic beats hitting their mark and the action sequences thrilling to follow.

Ultimately, Billy Bat is a precisely planned and efficiently presented manga; it’s clear to see how in control Urasawa is. Despite such a gigantic cast and involved plot, he never loses his way. The story is well-rounded and confidently written, with the characters consistent and appealing. Additionally, the drama is realistic and attentively developed, with many of the story arcs able to garner substantial emotional investment. Overall, Billy Bat is an immersive, gripping and highly stirring read; among Urasawa’s best.

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