After a long wait Netflix has included, in its catalogue, a work rightly considered as a cornerstone of Japanese animation.
Created by the brilliant author Naoki Urusawa, Monsters is an epic thriller that takes its audience down dark and dangerous roads, in which ethics and morals are challenged, with one of the most fascinating villains ever created.
How it all began
Kenzo Tenma is a brilliant young Japanese neurosurgeon who is carrying out his doctorate at a prestigious clinic in Düsseldorf, Germany. He is engaged to the beautiful daughter of the hospital director, Eva, and has a bright career ahead of him.
Tenma is devoted to the noble cause of saving the lives of others with medicine, a selfless and sometimes even naive man, so much so that he is blatantly exploited by his colleagues. The difference of views between our protagonist and those around him seems to become ever greater: he is committed to anyone in need, but the other doctors, the director and even Eva herself do not share his humanitarian intent. People’s lives, Eva says, are not all the same. There are those who are better, and deserve to be helped and protected, and those who are not worthy. The breaking point occurs when Tenma is forced to operate on the mayor of the city, a powerful and authoritarian figure, just when a child arrives at the hospital with a serious head wound and about to die. Accompanying him is a little girl, the twin sister of the injured child, in a state of shock. Tenma doesn’t hesitate and, disobeying the hospital director’s order, decides to operate on the child.
Although the operation is successful and the child is saved, Tenma pays for his decision with general contempt: he loses his status within the hospital and all his career prospects seem to be shattered. But Tenma remains convinced that he made the right decision by saving that child and, little by little, with dedication and commitment, he regains a position of prestige … until the people around him begin to suffer fatal accidents. When the death count begins to rise, Tenma discovers that the child he had saved years earlier, little Johan Liebert, is actually a dangerous psychopath, an unscrupulous manipulator, endowed with extraordinary acumen and a strange, perverse charm. . He is responsible for the murders that seem to surround Johan, but it is impossible for the doctor to prove it. Worse still: the police begin to suspect that, in reality, he is the perpetrator of the crimes. Forced to flee, Tenma realizes he’s made a terrible mistake: he didn’t save an innocent child, but he gave life back to a monster. Every murder, every crime committed by Johan will weigh on his conscience. The only solution for Tenma is to start a long hunt for this mysterious and elusive opponent to right his mistake. Unfortunately for him, the secrets that are buried in the past of Johan and his sister Nina are much darker than anyone can imagine.
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Manga and anime
Monsters is based on a series of comics created by the celebrated manga artist Naoki Urusawa, one of the most influential and talented authors of the contemporary scene. He is the spiritual heir of the “god of manga” himself, Osamu TezukaUrusawa is also heavily influenced by the style of Katsuhiro Otomo, the author of Akira. From them Urusawa inherits an extraordinary sense of rhythm and narrative progression, combined with a clean and effective trait, in which the close-up expressions of the characters stand out in all their expressive power. His works range from sports manga to science fiction, from thriller to comedy, always maintaining an exceptional level of quality. Urusawa becomes famous precisely with Monsters, initially serialized in the Big Comic Original magazine, published by Shogakukan, which will then be collected in 18 volumes, published in Italy, like the other works of the author, by Panini under the Planet Manga label. In 2004 the renowned Madhouse animation studio launched the animated series consisting of 72 episodes, directed by Masayuki Kojima (Made in Abyss, Abenobashi), which faithfully reproduces the manga both in the design of the characters (curated by Kitaro Kosaka of Studio Ghibli) and in the construction of the sequences and shots. The soundtrack, curated by Kuniaki Haishima, is particularly relevant and effective, with some international collaborations by the Los Chilenos group and the splendid ending For the love of life sung by David Sylvian.
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The man and the monster
Monsters is considered, rightly, one of the best series of recent years. The same Guillermo del Toro he is an admirer of Urusawa’s work and has said he is interested in a possible transposition into live action. The manga is a complex and articulated thriller, in which the story develops over several decades, with continuous flashbacks and changes of setting. Fortunately, the animated series takes the right time to tell not only the moments of action, but also and above all the emotional and moral journey of its protagonists. Which is, then, the real added value of this title. Unquestionably the majority of the extraordinary successful that Monsters has met with critics and fans of anime and manga, and beyond, it must be attributed to Urusawa’s incredible ability to outline complex, multifaceted characters, profoundly human in their defects, in their pettiness as in their outbursts of nobility, and of put them in situations where the line between manipulation and free will becomes increasingly uncertain and blurred. Here, however, there is more: there is the perfect antagonist, one of the villains scariest and most disturbing that has appeared in genre fiction. Johan is an extraordinary character in his total alienation, an almost Nietzschean superhuman being, capable of manipulating others to his liking, often with a sweet and imperturbable smile. An individual with the potential to change the world, and not just in a manner of speaking.
At the same time Johan is a very cold and disturbing death machine, a calculating and lucid assassin, always one step (or two, or three) ahead of his pursuers, who are often not even aware that they themselves are part of the machinations planned, over the years, by this elusive and enigmatic gray eminence. However, there is a “weak point” in the characterization of these super-serial killers: their past, the motivations and the events that led them to become something “non-human”, always seem a bit trivial and forced when they are revealed . Think for example of Hannibal Lecter, or other famous serial killers, real or imaginary. However, this does not apply to Johan: all of Tenma’s manhunt is, in the end, a journey into the mysterious past of the angelic-faced assassin as one after the other unveils frightening secrets and vile experiments of which Johan is victim and engine at the same time. Johan’s figure continues to swing in perfect balance in this realm of absolute ambiguity, beyond good and evil, beyond madness and reason, in which Tenma desperately tries to maintain his moral integrity. Johan pursues an apparently inexplicable plan, he seems to follow erratic directions that only at a certain point seem to acquire meaning, only to lose it again and return to the starting point.
The viewer is captured by the succession of events, by inescapable and impossible moral dilemmas, in a fight without quarter lived together with the idealist Tenma to try to oppose a semblance of humanity and goodness to what, apparently, is an unbeatable and profoundly opponent ” monstrous”, also in its original etymology: something prodigious, something that has been touched, in some way, by the divine.
And Urusawa is extraordinarily good at playing with this ambiguity: sipping events, keeping the story glued with properly dosed twists and cliffhangers. Above all, he doesn’t judge, he doesn’t offer certain answers: he wants the reader/spectator not to limit himself to being a passive witness to the clash between “good” and “evil”, between human and monster, but that those who have followed the story from the beginning to in the last vignette/shot he decides, with his personal interpretation, who to side with (and it is by no means an obvious choice).
Around this dichotomy, even aesthetic, between the angel of death Johan and the very human and undone Tenma, then moves a constellation of fascinating and credible secondary characters, starting from Johan’s twin, Nina, determined to help the fugitive doctor to stop his brother, to the police commissioner Lunge, to get to Wolfgang (and his exceptional alter ego, “The Magnificent Steiner”), from Johan’s trusted collaborator, Roberto, to the last pieces of the puzzle: Johan’s mother and Nina and the terrible Franz Bonaparta, the man who seems to hold the key to solving the mystery of Johan. All their stories chase each other and intersect in a crescendo of emotions throughout the series, with the disturbing and constant presence in the background of the monster Johan, true fulcrum of all destinies, up to an intense and shocking ending, probably one of the best moments of the whole series and which, of course, we will not reveal.
We leave you the pleasure, the fun and the moral duty to decide, for yourself, if what the haughty Eva said at the beginning of this story is true. That not all human lives are the same.