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 Talk: Bio-Booster Armor Guyver

151Guyver is a classic — the manga began early in 1985 and is still published to this day. Written and illustrated by Yoshiki Takaya, it follows a high school student named Fukamachi Sho, who stumbles upon a strange device that envelopes him, and subsequently allows him to transform into the Guyver, which is a sort of bio-engineered alien bodysuit. Sho and his friends then find themselves pursued by a mysterious organisation with an otherworldly origin named Chronos, who want to reclaim the Guyver unit.

The manga was promptly adapted to anime in 1986. The fifty-five minute original video animation was titled ‘Guyver: Out of Control’ and made its way to Western audiences in the early 1990s. For many, it was among their initial exposure to anime. This was followed by two more adaptations: a twelve episode series in 1998, and a twenty-six episode series in 2005, which covered the first four and ten manga volumes respectively. It was even adapted to film in 1991 and starred none other than Mark Hamill. Apparently it had some degree of success, as there was a sequel in 1994, although without Hamill.

I must credit the 2005 adaptation as my introduction to the series. It remains the newest interpretation of Guyver, and has certainly aged the best. It was part of the ADV line-up, with the company also helping to produce. I love this anime for two reasons in particular: its accuracy in adapting the manga, and its ending. It did not cut corners, or attempt to alter the plot, and was not afraid to end on a rather perilous note. It serves as a terrific platform to launch viewers into the manga, which utilises the long form of the medium to stage some spectacular revelations and surprises, which I have seldom seen in a series that seemed to begin as an analogue shounen.

Warning! Spoilers below.

The reason I’m writing about Guyver today is because I was recently on the hunt for an anime where either the villain is the primary character, or one in which the antagonists win. To my surprise, there really isn’t that many, or at least many good ones. On the other hand, there are a wealth of manga series with a significant focus on the antagonists. Guyver is one of these, and the 2005 adaptation actually ends with the villains winning.

In episode twenty-three the heroes are easily defeated, and in episode twenty-four the evil organisation Chronos takes over the world. The swiftness of this transition really struck me. The takeover is portrayed in montage in both the anime and the manga, with multiple world leaders simultaneously revealing themselves to be Zoanoids (a sort of super powered monster of which Chronos is comprised) on what would become known as X-Day. They are battled, shot at, and even nuked, but all to no avail. Then we cut to a year later, and the entire planet is under Chronos’ dominance.

150Our hero Sho is nowhere to be seen. In fact, he was freshly vaporised by one of the founders of Chronos, who was literally created by alien-like Gods who spurred the onset of human evolution. What else had beset our hero before then? Well, besides his life being ruined simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was knocked unconscious while in the Guyver suit by one of the villains. The suit subsequently went into ‘autopilot’ and ended up killing Sho’s own father (with Sho still inside), who had been unwittingly transformed into a Zoanoid. At this point, the manga was still published in Tokuma Shoten’s Shounen Captain magazine, with Guyver being a mainstay from the magazine’s inception until its dissolution. The magazine was home to other gritty manga like Trigun and Grey.

I feel like Guyver is a bit of an outlier these days. Sure, there are manga with similar concepts — such as Zetman and Ultraman — but I feel as though none quite match the level of depth and engagement present in Guyver. A lot of it sounds very strange and rather far-fetched, but it is deceptively layered and wonderfully organic. The story ultimately spans hundreds of millennia, with a gripping and sinuous mythology, and although some of the characters are terrifically funky-looking, they all have personality, or at least a sense of plausibility and depth. Many of them are flawed; they make controversial decisions, and are rash and swayed by personal interest, which lends them a degree of authenticity.

Characters switch sides — villains become anti-heroes and protagonists are turned against their comrades. It’s not so black and white, or good versus evil. Sho is betrayed multiple times by Makishima, one of his very limited number of Guyver allies, who ends up establishing his own questionably wicked faction. He even takes advantage of his childhood friend who obeys his every command, and eventually snatches away her livelihood altogether by transforming her into a Zoalord (which is essentially an all-powerful Zoanoid) condemned to live a tragically short life.

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I feel it’s a testament to the manga’s depth and intrigue that it began publishing in 1985 and is still going more than thirty years later, albeit the updates are few and far between.  Nonetheless, it does feel like a remnant of an older time. There are no harems or flashy protagonists in Guyver, nor does the hero try to balance his super powers with an ordinary school life. It’s amusingly contrasted with almost every manga serialised within Monthly Shounen Ace magazine, which is currently home to Guyver.

The pages are dominated by cutesy female characters as seen in the likes of Kemono Friends and Gamers, which the covers then paint as almost gaudy and super contemporary. You could scarcely guess it is the type of magazine in which Guyver would reside. Nonetheless, there it remains, holding on after thirty-one volumes. The manga sadly has almost no presence in the West, and has itself been absent in Japan due to a hiatus, but to me, the day Guyver comes to a close will be one of the most momentous days in the history of manga — one of the true greats of an older time will have concluded, leaving behind a terrific legacy and a tragic void. I feel it’s one of the heavyweight ‘superpower’ series, and I wonder if the Marvel obsessed masses of today would afford it a new audience.

One can dream.