Monster (Vol. 1): The Perfect Edition by Naoki Urasawa
Warning: This review is spoiler heavy, but I wanted to write a review of volume one that could let you know if you might want to read the entire series. You can read safely up to the first place I’ve marked for spoilers. There’s another place I warn of even more spoilers, so you have two places you might want to stop reading.
Monster by Naoki Urasawa is an award-winning manga that was written from 1994-2001, and once completed, it was eighteen volumes long. It is now being re-released in the United States, and I’m very pleased: I have read some of Urasawa’s other work, and it’s not average manga. He is known for both 20th Century Boys, of which I have read a little, and Pluto, which I’ve finished reading. Pluto is an eight-volume rewrite and expansion of “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” the most famous story about Astro Boy, a long manga series written by “The God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka. Urasawa’s Monster promises to be as good as Pluto, and since Pluto is one of my favorite works of manga, that’s the highest praise I can offer based on a single volume.
Urasawa is both artist and writer, and I love his artistic style, which is easily recognizable. It is very clear and easy to follow, unlike some manga I’ve read. His writing flows well, the plot is fast-paced, and the characters are intricate. He pulls readers in fast by piling mystery upon mystery, but his story-telling through both the words and images is so clear that one is never confused or lost as the story takes its surprising twists and turns.
The story is about a young Japanese doctor, Dr. Kenzo Tenma, who goes to work in a famous hospital in Germany in order to be mentored by an older doctor whose great work is what makes the hospital famous. However, Tenma soon learns that he is far more skilled than this doctor, the current Director of the Hospital; that the director is just using him to make himself and the hospital look good; that the medical research papers Tenma writes are taken by the director and published under his name instead; and that his girlfriend, the director’s daughter, only stays with him because she thinks her father will make him Chief of Surgery eventually. The book starts with all of this good fortune in place, but very quickly Urasawa has everything come crashing down on the poor, idealistic Tenma.
**Some Spoilers Ahead**
Tenma, naive though he is, learns quickly. He doesn’t stay naive for long. He learns how superficial his girlfriend is and how badly he is being used, and he takes a stand. The crisis is created by a series of events that happen very quickly: Even though he arrived at the hospital before a more “important” patient, a laborer dies because he is not given the best and most immediate treatment from Tenma. However, it isn’t Tenma’s fault, even though the laborer’s wife blames him loudly in the halls of the hospital. Tenma didn’t operate immediately on the laborer only because the director ordered him to operate on the other patient instead. Next, the director orders Tenma to stop his current research in order to write a paper for him to present at a conference.
As a result of his growing frustrations, Tenma makes the decision that will change his life: When a young boy comes to the hospital, Tenma operates on him even though the director orders Tenma to operate on the mayor, who comes in for treatment after the boy arrives. Tenma does not want to make the same mistake he made with the laborer.
Since Tenma is a brilliant head surgeon, these emergencies are life-and-death situations. And since no other doctors can work at his high level of expertise, Tenma’s working on a patient instead of another doctor is dooming one patient to life and another to death, or at least that’s the clear point the author is making. In other words, Urasawa is creating a problem of moral philosophy within his fiction, something along these lines: “If emergency patients arrive at a hospital only and always in pairs, and you always have to pick one to live and one to die, on what will you base your decisions?” In effect, that’s what the author is asking of the director, of Tenma, and ultimately of us. The director decides based on his career which is based on the fame and success of the hospital; Tenma attempts to make his decisions simply on arrival time in order to tell himself that he is unlike the director; what would you do?
By making his decision on arrival times, Tenma saves the life of the boy, but he decides the mayor’s fate at the same time: The mayor, of course, dies due to the less skilled work of the other doctor. As a result of his decision, Tenma loses everything. He is now given the worst work at the hospital, he is pushed to work at all hours, he is told he will never be promoted, and his girlfriend abandons him.
I know it seems as if I’ve told the entire story, but all I’ve explained is the basic premise for the story. Urasawa wants to get to the real subject of his manga series: The nature of Evil. How does he get there? After developing all these characters, he has a mysterious murderer kill off the director and all the other doctors who were allied with him at the hospital. And then the boy whose life Tenma saved disappears never to be seen again. We are now left with a stunned Tenma, whose fortunes rise just as fast as they fell. Only one problem remains for him: He is the main suspect in the murder cases. After that, nine years pass before the story picks up again.
**Major Spoilers Ahead**
Now stop reading if you don’t want a complete spoiler, because I’m about to give one. What I’ve written above will do well for a review of volume one. It’s a good volume. It’s probably going to be a great series. I read only volume one and now I want to read all of these volumes. I WILL read all of them. But volume one only sets up the remaining seventeen volumes. To truly give a review of the series and to explain what Monster is really about, I’m going to have to talk about what happens. In other words, everything above this paragraph is a review for volume one, and what I write next will summarize volume one in case you want to see if you want to read the series. So I’m warning you one more time: Major Spoilers ahead. I’m also warning you that if you read ahead, you’re going to be adding eighteen books of manga to your reading list.
Nine years pass, and then the story of Monster really starts: Tenma is still at the hospital, but now he is the Chief of Surgery. He is kind, does great surgical work, and is still motivated to help others based on decisions that are not politically motivated. Tenma is a good man, and he set himself on that path by helping the young boy nine years previously. However, he is brought into contact with another major character whom he met nine years ago very briefly: Inspector Lunge, who has an almost perfect memory and is convinced that Tenma killed the doctors years ago in order to become Chief of Surgery. Lunge is determined to prove that Tenma committed those murders.
In the present, a man comes to the hospital, a man wanted by the police in connection with a series of crimes and murders. He seems to have some great fear of informing. Somebody will kill this man if he speaks, and so eventually, he runs from the hospital. Tenma finds his hospital bed empty; he also finds the police guarding the room are dead; and unfortunately nobody is around to witness that Tenma is not doing any of the killing. So Tenma pursues this man through the streets of Germany. He finds him. He also finds the Monster — a Monster whom, unfortunately, Tenma recognizes.
And that is the full premise of Monster as a SERIES. I really didn’t know how to set this review up without giving spoilers for volume one. In the end, I’ve told too much about volume one, but I’ve told what I would have wanted to know if I’d never heard of the author and somebody told me to read a manga called Monster. I would not be interested. But the rest of what I’ve written in this review — the spoiler section, unfortunately — would intrique me. From reading this first volume along with my knowledge of the author’s work on Pluto, I can tell that Urasawa will tell a fast-paced, but thoughtful story that, though it will be played out in larger-than-life terms, will have relevance to my life and the ethical choices I make every day.