Monster, and False Advertising

So I recently took a look at the anime Monster (commonly referred to as “Naoki Urasawa’s Monster” to help you distinguish it from the pages of porn you’ll get by searching “monster anime”). When I saw the pitch, it sounded right up my alley: a talented doctor sacrifices his career to save a young boy over a politician, but later discovers the boy has grown up to become a serial killer. Sounds like a deeply philosophical piece about personal responsibility and the value of human life, right? I’m all about that stuff.

Turns out, that’s not what it’s about in the slightest. What it’s actually about is an absurdly convoluted mystery about the serial killer, who was actually serial killing even as a kid because of a convoluted secret evil government conspiracy to make him into a supersoldier, but he was ~so awesome~ he killed everyone in the facility and struck out on his own, and also there’s another evil government conspiracy in there somewhere. I don’t know exactly, I stopped watching after 10 episodes.

Because that’s simply not what I signed on for. The real story is nothing at all like the prologue; the doctor character actually resigns from his job so he can investigate Villain Sue, and his doctor skills are reduced to a tangential quirk as we focus mainly on other characters doing their own investigations, all of whom are equally bland and uninteresting.

This all makes me think about the purpose of plot twists, and when they’re valid and when they feel cheap. This isn’t a bait-and-switch exactly; it’s not even just a twist for the sake of a twist. But it still feels dishonest. The real premise of the story isn’t what you’re sold in the beginning. If you had told me from the start that this would be a detective novel about a giant conspiracy, I would have been better able to judge whether it aligned with my interests and adjust my expectations going in. But that’s not what I was told the story would be about, so instead I’m just annoyed it won’t engage with the things I picked it up for.

I don’t care about the conspiracy. I don’t care about why he’s a serial killer. I don’t care about the super special police inspector deuteragonist. I want to see the doctor grappling with ethics. But that’s not what the author wanted to write about, and so it becomes an afterthought; every token attempt at addressing the theme is boring, melodramatic, and black-and-white, with frankly childish levels of subtlety. The hospital directors are cackling evil, so he disobeys orders! Then they die so he doesn’t have to pay any consequences, oh no! Then he refuses to heal this guy because he’s a murderer! But then he decides the murderer did it for a good reason so he’ll save him! Wow, so deep.

The point where I dropped this was the point where I realized no resolution other than a complete derailment of the plot would be satisfying to me. Fundamentally, the doctor is wrong to do this. The entire prologue hinges on the idea that he is uniquely skilled and can heal patients no one else can. Giving that up to pursue this personal obsession will kill far more people than Johan ever could. The most ethical thing for him to do is to report what he knows to the police and get out of their way. (There is an attempt to justify it where he finds out early on two police officers are maybe possibly in Johan’s pocket, but he makes no attempt to test or verify that or even just go to another precinct – even for as big of a villain sue as he is, Johan cannot possibly have all of Germany in his pocket.) The entire premise is shot from the beginning. I don’t even care if the resolution is that he’s wrong (spoiler alert: it isn’t), I’m not interested in watching 70 episodes of Doctor Idiot stumbling around doing non-doctory things just to learn he shouldn’t have wasted everyone’s time.

I’m honestly baffled this is considered one of the greatest dramatic manga of all time; it’s the portrait of mediocrity to me. The characters are flat, the philosophy is trite, and the plot isa convoluted, melodramatic mess. It wasn’t actively terrible, but there was just nothing engaging about it. Pretty much everything it did, Trigun did better by orders of magnitude. (The climactic scene is actually pretty much exactly the same as Trigun‘s but playing straight everything it was criticizing, which is just hilarious.)

It makes me think back to Fullmetal Alchemist, and how there’s a similar disjunct in the manga/Brotherhood. The opening is a low fantasy narrative with emphasis placed on politics and magic mechanics, but the actual plot is just a standard high fantasy epic conflict that barely engages with those things at all. By contrast, the anime only really has one big twist – equivalent exchange is a lie – that is a perfectly logical fit for the story as a whole. The FMA anime is, from the beginning, about injustice, about good people suffering unfairly. The twist furthers and answers that question instead of asking a brand new one.

And I think that’s the key, really. You have to answer the questions you ask at the beginning. Not just at the end, but constantly throughout. That’s what having a theme means. Monster doesn’t, and as a consequence it just can’t hold my interest.

17 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    I read Monster some years ago and I remember essentially none of it, so yeah I’m going to go with ‘unmemorable’. It is interesting that a work failing to follow through on its own premise can be seen as false advertising in a sense, though really I think that kind of extends to mediocrity itself. I mean, isn’t everything promising to be good? Or at least decent?

    I was re-reading Farla’s Let’s Read of uhh Battle Royale, and I really did appreciate that, despite its flaws, the book had a strong narrative and thematic vision that it held to throughout. Funnily enough, the biggest flaw in that vision seemed to be Kazuo Kiriyama, the psycho student who upended the ‘normal people stuck in extreme situation’ thing by becoming a supervillain. Not too different from what happened here!

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  2. The bait-and-switch thing is one of my least favorite “plot twists.” I had what would have been my favorite anime go from a nice, dystopian story to Aliens, and it made no sense, did nothing to serve the plot, and was just freakin’ weird. I didn’t even watch the rest of it, it pissed me off so much. I agree; it’s really annoying when a story betrays the basic premise it sets itself up as for some odd gimmick.

  3. Socordya says:

    Well I like convoluted mysteries, evil genius and conspiracies, but I was still disappointed by Monster . Very draggy and melodramatic. Also, as you said, it thinks it’s doing deep ethical dilemma, but it’s ultimately super conventional morality: killing is never okay! Never heard that one before.

    Another thing it did which drives me nut wherever I see it (for example in Sherlock) is the tropes of the super smart and/or super strong antagonist who could destroy the protagonist at any time, but doesn’t because they finds the hero “fascinating” or whatever. This is bad story-telling because it’s purely arbitrary. It gives the writer a blank check to do whatever they want without having it makes sense. And it makes the hero extra-special with no effort.

    1. I disagree where Sherlock is concerned. Giving the protagonist/antagonist conflict one of a more personal conflict can be a very feasible reason for sparing someone, from past ties to being family, etc. In the case of Sherlock, I think that it’s unfair to say that the hero is special with no effort; the effort, in this case, would be in convincing the reader that Sherlock is indeed a genius beyond a nigh-magical ability to pick up clues that aren’t there to solve the whodunnit. The plot has to be as clever as the main character is proclaimed to be, or the reader/viewer-base will pick up on this and punish the author for it. 

       

       

       

      1. CrazyEd says:

        So, what you’re trying to say is… it’d have been okay for Moriarty to keep sparing Sherlock because he found him fascinating… if Sherlock was actually a fascinating character, and not an aggressively bland when he’s not aggressively unlikeable one?

         

        (Of course, what they should’ve done was make the show as episodic as Sherlock Holmes stories were written, but modern television absolutely hates the episodic story format for anything but for comedy cartoons for kids, and Steven Moffat makes the average showrunner look like an episodic series fetishist in comparision, despite his sole strength being episodic stories for standalone episodes.)

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        1. The Reeds of Enki says:
          [So, what you’re trying to say is… it’d have been okay for Moriarty to keep sparing Sherlock because he found him fascinating… if Sherlock was actually a fascinating character, and not an aggressively bland when he’s not aggressively unlikeable one?]

          Pretty much. I think 98 percent of Tumblr disagrees with you on Sherlock being bland, seeing as he practically has a cult following, but I can’t vouch for the series myself, having never watched it. But yes, it’s okay to have intense personal conflicts fueled by something strange, so long as the plot and everything of the show, book, etc. backs up the character’s being worthy of being spared. 

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          1. SpoonyViking says:

            Sherlock is bad. Really, really bad. I’d be willing to bet good money most of its tumblr fanbase is due to all the shipping between Sherlock and the non-entity that Watson becomes.

            Honestly, Elementary is a much better show to watch, even if its not without its flaws.

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            1. Socordya says:

              Since I managed to derail the post about Monster being bad into a conversation about Sherlock being bad, I might as well post this link, lol.

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            2. SpoonyViking says:

              I’ve only started seeing hbomberguy’s videos recently, after I heard of what he did for the Mermaids charity, but that video and the one on Doctor Who’s 2017 Christmas special perfectly sum up my feelings about Moffat’s writing in general and the problems with Sherlock specifically.

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  4. Act says:

    I had this exact experience with Tokyo Ghoul, which was pitched as being about what it means to be human and the morality of death but was actually about heaping superpowers and specialness onto the protagonist. I had the exact reaction as you: why even bother creating a setup that asks these questions if you don’t actually give a shit about them?

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    1. Joe says:
      I sort of lost track of Tokyo Ghoul after the second season split into its own continuity(?) and generally got confusing. However, despite completely losing the thematic thread around halfway through, I thought the ending to the first season was pretty great. If it’s not too much trouble, could you go into more detail about how things degenerate from there?
      1. Act says:

        Unfortunately I can’t speak to the anime; I read the manga and quit like 20 chapters in in favor of a plot summary when it became clear it was glossing over the stuff I was interested in.

        1. Joe says:
          Looking it up, it seems like the first season ends on chapter 66, which is kind of nuts. The show is on the slow side and one of the arcs is already hammy and pointless, so the idea that they’re actually moving blisteringly fast through the chapters is really weird. Ep 12 of the first season does deliver on the initial promise, and I’d recommend it enough to just watch it as a standalone, but burying it in some random chapter halfway through the manga is just baffling to me.
    2. Aikaterini says:

      I also had the same reaction when it came to the manga “Code:Breaker.” In the first volume, it had a great setup with its tough, no-nonsense protagonist who firmly believed that murder was wrong no matter what, and its ruthless antagonist, who believed in an eye for an eye and had no qualms about setting criminals on fire. Then, all of a sudden, it started shifting from a manga that seemed to be emulating Death Note, what with its themes of crime and justice, to a typical shounen manga: where there are other Code Breakers out there and they gain points or abilities after certain fights, etc. It was so disappointing, and that’s even before the protagonist, a physically strong girl trained in martial arts, gets derailed into a preachy, useless tag-along who does nothing but glomp people, and the antagonist is removed from his role so that he can be just another boy on a team of Code Breakers.

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  5. illhousen says:

    I always meant to watch Monster but would always procrastinate because ass-long anime intimidate me.

    Now I feel validated.

  6. Nerem says:
    Johan fits into probably one of my most disliked character tropes ever: The idea that ‘being a genius’ means ‘you’re hyper smart at literally all things innately and are also are physically superhuman at the same time’. All the genius characters from, say, Ender’s game fits into this as well as a LOT of anime and it drives me nuts.

    I’ve been reading The Promised Neverland lately and it’s fairly enjoyable and manages to avoid that pitfall, and really you should just read/watch it instead of Monster, which I could never stand.

  7. Socordya says:

    St. Elmo’s Fire, since you did Monster I might as well nominate you to review the other Naoki Urasawa big work, 20th Century Boy.

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