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.