A Flawed Diamond
I feel compelled to prefix this review with the following statement: Monster is a quality series, and well worth the investment. The plot's premise—the good doctor's most selfless decision resulting in death and misery for the rest of the world—is as ambitious as it is intriguing. What Monster does well, it does very well. The richness of its characters is remarkable: Tenma is a very strong protagonist, both easily sympathetic and likable. His struggle to rid the world of the monster he's unleashed upon it (along with his own nerves and morals being constantly tested) is a goal you can quite comfortably find yourself immersed in. The supporting cast is highly fleshed out and layered, from the shallow and politically incorrect Eva to the monstrous Roberto. Nina makes for an impressive deuteragonist, providing a morally straight (if challenged) foil to her evil brother. Johan himself is often considered to be the series's strongest point, and for good reason. Johan is a strikingly powerful villain, a perplexing enigma whose history and motives are distorted from view throughout the story. His complexity as a killer (or lack thereof) is a point of contention both in-verse and out—what drives his rampage of seemingly wanton murder and psychological torture is a query still driving debate. Indeed, the show's characterization, pacing, and skillful reveals certainly qualify it as a diamond to me. However, as with any diamond worth looking at, it's not without its flaws... one of which stands out above all. Vague spoiler territory ahead; you've been warned. The ending was a grand disappointment. That our heroes' purity and moral fiber had to be saved by the painfully contrived arrival of someone whose presence in the plot was suspect to begin with certainly put a damper on an otherwise well-built up grand finale. The big question of whether one can betray one's own morals to do the right thing in a chaotic, emergency situation is teased and then rendered a moot point in the span of a minute—one doesn't even have to; karma was there to intervene and act on one's behalf. And I did not like that one bit. All in all, Monster was a great series. The questions it raises are largely left ambiguous—perhaps too ambiguous for some—but if you can handle drawing your own conclusions, then you're in for a treat.
Really good, but not perfection.
There's a lot to like about Monster. Johan is an engaging villain who always shows just enough Hidden Depths to make redemption look like a distant possibility (even if he is Obviously Evil and the narrative leans heavily in his favor, sometimes to the point of straining credibility), and there's plenty of supporting characters to choose from, from Grimmer to Reichwein. That being said, the core moral of the series will go over like a lead balloon unless you already agree with it, though there does seem to be some attempt at ambiguity. Forgiveness is for the most part a foregone conclusion, and characters can almost without fail be talked out of most negative emotions they might be feeling towards their victimizers; those that can't tend to be simply killed off by the narrative. It doesn't seem to me like an in-depth treatment of issues of anger and resentment; sure, Tenma sometimes points out that the victims have something dear to lose through taking vengeance, but when he resorts to clichés such as "It won't bring them back,", it's very difficult to take him seriously. I get why people like it, and I like it quite a bit myself, but I also think it's kind of overrated.
Bloody Good, but...
Monster is excellent for all the reasons already mentioned by Azxc., though it is not beyond criticism. Monster is a victim of its own sincerity. The unique degree of seriousness and maturity makes Monster almost transcendent. I cannot compare Monster to any other anime, but I am tempted to compare it to live action TV shows. Unfortunately, by live action tv standards, some of the dramatic devices feel mawkish and trite. I have never had this issue with any other anime because I have always felt anime cannot be fairly compared to live action; it would be a case of apples and oranges. Monster however presents a curious dilemma. On one hand it is good enough to stand apart from any other anime series, but on the other, it is reminiscent of corny live action drama. Oh, and bad guys say "Dok-tor Ten-Ma" far too often. It's supposed to sound contemptuous and creepy, but it gets annoying when they are saying his name every sentence. Also I can't help but laugh whenever someone compliments Tenma as a "really great doctor". It is accidently reminicent of Garth Marenghi's Marty Stu M.D protagonist from Darkplace
A meandering letdown
On first watching this, I assumed that there would be a point to the proceedings, the unbelievable would be made believable, or at least I would get to see intriguing dynamics. Episodes passed, each arc documenting some heinous new scheme of Johan or his would-be followers, but none amounted to anything. “Well!” thought I, “Perhaps this, and all else so far, are ACTUALLY pieces in some gigantic jigsaw puzzle metaplot of Johan's that'll TOTALLY PAY OFF in the finale.” Nope. One might argue spoiler is the plot, but this would ignore the fact that 74 episodes of that exact same inconclusive plot over and over did what could've comfortably been one arc in a better paced story. In lieu of a worthwhile narrative, seeing the seamy underbelly of society the story's set in could also be a show by itself, but it's simply paraded before us “Insignificant or not, this sure is bad, it can't really be helped either. Are you disgusted by life, or what?”, beyond that, nothing is shown, said, or thought on. Spoonfeeding is bad, but simply tossing (rather derivative) morality plays at viewers ad nauseam does not a philosophical conundrum make. Failing that, what about the larger-than-life “hook” of the premise, its characters? Johan's persuasiveness, Tenma's bleeding heart of gold, Nina's fractured iron will… These things are hinted as incredible by backstory, but come time to sell them on screen, it's immediately obvious that the writer has no idea what these marvels should look like up close. All we see are tricks, but not the real magic behind them, wholly insufficient for a fictional character study, especially one with people manipulated against each other like clockwork dolls absent elaboration. The damning point, however, is the ending. None of the characters matured palpably beyond their introductory arc. Even the two central questions underpinning the entire series ( spoiler) are shamelessly dodged in the exact same fashion as always. Basically, be warned that if you really, really want to watch this show, try just the first arc or two. If you don't find them satisfying standalone, the rest of the show has absolutely nothing more to offer you.
A Monster Swathed in Humanity
Not everyone will like this series. Some will find it too slowly paced or irresolute in its conclusions but, for me, every aspect of Naoki Urasawa's masterwork came together to create something as close to perfection as can be conceivably achieved. You can either read the manga or watch the anime — they are exceedingly similar, with the anime essentially being the manga in motion, and both are wonderfully realized. My first exposure to Monster was through the English dub on youtube (before it was removed) which I watched within a week. For this reason, I have never found that the story lagged since I smoothly passed from one episode to another which also allowed me to see the beautiful ties and transitions Urasawa had crafted. Monster has everything: spectacular artwork and music, great voice acting, a captivating story, and (most importantly) among the most fascinating and well-drawn characters of any medium. The cast is huge but there was not one character I disliked — each made a worthy contribution and there was never a point where I wished a character would simply go away. In the hands of a less skilled writer, Tenma would be nothing but a pathetic Gary Stu, Nina a pile of Woobie mush, Eva a Rich Bitch, and Johan a Villain Sue/Complete Monster. Yet he infuses these characters with great richness — for example, Tenma's goodness is an attribute that gets him into trouble as much as it helps him and, more importantly, makes one question his decisions. And the ending — it was sublime. Here, Urasawa managed to distill down the essence of the series into a few scenes while providing each and every character some measure of closure. Although there was a touch of ambiguity, I felt this was necessary thematically as well. I would say, though, that Urasawa's greatest strength is the depth to which he can plumb humanity and the vastness that Monster encompasses. Not every character gets a deep and expansive story, but they all have a stake. Every person's life matters in this tale and this is very difficult thing to achieve. I would recommend this series to anyone, anime/manga fan or not, and while some will undoubtably wonder what all the fuss is about, there'll be others who will be drawn in, as I was. Equal parts psychological thriller, detective fiction, and fairytale, Monster aims for the heavens and reaches the stars.
Monster is one deep thriller of a manga series that showcases the pinnacle of what graphic novels are capable of. Monster is the best manga series I have ever read. The plot is mature and deep, enthralling and shocking, and downright masterful in its ways of storytelling. The themes of murder, suspense, death, and darkness are played with so well that the reader becomes drawn more into the story with each passing panel. The cast is quite large but showcased brilliantly as all the characters have their own story arch and deep lives which are explained very well as they all tend to intertwine with each other. On the part of the main antagonist and protagonist (Johan & Dr.Tenma) the series is top notch in portraying their struggles and triumphs in the series. The art in Monster is very detailed and realistic, and the artists renditions of Germany are done very accurately. While I really enjoyed this series, it may be a bit too complicated and dark for some to swallow, but it is still very captivating nonetheless. As the many events and conflicts within the series all come together, Monster proves to be one the best manga of all time, a manga that very few anime series and American graphic novels can rival. Any manga fan needs to check out this title. With drama and drama done to perfection, Monster will suck you in on its ride through the many aspects of the human condition and not let go until its stunning climax
Well, it started out good...
Keep in mind, my review is limited strictly to the manga. My main problems started with volume 3, specifically with Dieter’s hero-worship of Tenma. I think it would have been better for Dieter to go with Tenma, but still be hesitant to completely trust him. After all, all he knows is that Tenma took him out of an abusive home. He has no idea at this point whether or not Tenma himself is abusive. His gradually learning to trust Tenma (and by extension, humanity) would have given the little guy a more realistic character arc. As it is, he feels rather flat. That’s not to say that he’s a bad character, just that there’s room for improvement. Next was volume 4…hoo boy. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the “racism is bad” message, but that didn’t make the symbolism feel any less heavy handed and anvilicious (please tell me I’m not the only one who found the Baby’s “my main dish is cold” line to be the essence of narm). Also, I found the “right wing means racist” idea to be offensive. In the real world, racism - sadly - transcends political alignment. This disgusting, prejudiced viewpoint can be held by anyone regardless of their political views. Then came volume 5 and all was well for a time. This is where the cast started expanding and where we started to regularly see “Day In The Limelight” Arcs, which was probably my favorite staple of the series. This technique allowed the series to veer into genres it might not have gone into if the focus had solely stayed on Tenma, Nina, and the pursuers (perhaps culminating in Martin’s very-much noir-influenced arc from volumes 14 and 15). Then there was the ending…yeah… All-in-all, it was an entertaining manga that had a sucky ending and contained a viewpoint I don’t entirely agree with: that all life is precious and that all men are equal. I agree that all men start out equal, but I also believe that your actions determine whether or not you REMAIN equal. By his crimes, I believe that Johan forfeited his right to be treated equally as law-abiding people. I mean, it has the characters debating the merits of killing him in order to save a child hostage. To me, that is the ultimate wall banger. It makes for a terrible (and ultimately impractical) philosophy…and for a frequently enjoyable, but ultimately flawed narrative.