The nature of a beast
On a path lined with bodies and enough suspense to make Alfred Hitchcock giggle with glee, Monster is a smart mystery set against the grim backdrop of post-Berlin wall East Germany. Weaving through mundane suburbs and the damp alleys of the underworld, the series shows both the best and the worst humans have to offer. Even in its first episodes, Monster raises a lot of questions about human nature. Whether they are ever answered remains a mystery. Some questions don't have answers, but exploring the possibilities becomes more important than finding answers.
A monster is on the loose, and Dr. Kenzo Tenma is afraid he might be responsible for its creation. A brilliant surgeon tethered to a manipulative mentor, Tenma is a kept man. Tempted by promises of a long, productive career, he follows a senior surgeon in possession of dubious ethics. When Tenma's morals clash with his mentor's ambitions, he makes a decision that changes everything. The consequences ripple out like waves in a pond, and Tenma finds himself chasing after an elusive phantom of a man. Determined to find the truth, he hopes to put a stop to a horror no one could have imagined.
Tenma defied his mentor and chose to save a child, a decision that gave him a new perspective on his life. That child grew up to become a killer. Horrified by this knowledge, driven by the need to take responsibility, Tenma sets out on a mission with a very hazy conclusion. The boy, Johan, now a young man, is as mysterious as he is dangerous. If Tenma really wants to deal with this young man, and find out what made him the way he is to figure out a way to deal with him, he must delve into his past. And thus begins the long, winding path of Monster. Fifteen episodes in, and already there have been enough twists to give a body whiplash. In a good way. Seriously. Given that this series is over seventy episodes long, the few morsels of information doled out here promise to be just the tip of a very tantalizing iceberg.
Monster's deliberate pace takes a little patience, but the rewards, even in this first box set, are great. The bleak atmosphere of mid-90's former East Germany is perfect for a mystery that may never be solved, for raising questions about the darkest corners of a person's heart. Refreshingly, given the setting, our hero, stripped of the benefits of the internet and cell phones, has to do all the digging by hand. We're treated to smoky back-room archives and thumbing rides along deserted country roads. This is old-school mystery. There's nothing wrong with higher-tech mysteries -there's something neo-magical about the wonders of technology- but the intimacy of a hero getting his hands dirty and chasing a menace on foot fits. Otherwise, all that post-wall atmosphere and grit would be utterly wasted.
These opening episodes don't answer just how dirty Tenma plans on getting his hands. He throws himself into his search, abandoning his old life. It's hard not to wonder how far Tenma intends to go. Will he keep his humanity? He's shown to be a good man, helping strangers and unwittingly inviting friendship. As a doctor, if he carries his plan out to its logical conclusion, could he handle it? On the opposite end of the scale, Johan's inclinations raise just as many questions about human nature. Was Johan born or made a monster? Nature versus nurture is an argument that will probably never yield a definitive answer, and Monster offers points from both sides of the fence. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who knows what else is in store for Tenma and Johan? This box set, however, promises to be the beginning of a pretty epic chase.
With its artwork that tends toward realism, the gritty, grey atmosphere, and engaging story, it's easy to forget Monster is animated. The story draws you in with interesting characters and the beginnings of a struggle with great promise. It's hard to say where a story like this is going to end up, but judging from these first episodes, getting there should never be dull.
A note: Monster is rated TV-MA for a reason. While it's not overly graphic, Monster has a high body count, and there's no question that the characters died very nasty deaths. It's creepy, it's disturbing, and while the story is awesome, it's not for kids. Watch it after they go to bed.
Details: Runtime 330 minutes. Contains episodes 1-15 on three dvds. Extras include a digital series guide with a director's interview, overview of post-WWII German history, a character guide, and very thorough episode recaps.