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Analysis / Monster

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Unmarked spoilers follow.

Complete Monster Deconstructed

Anyone remotely familiar with Johan's memetic personality has a fairly good idea of this character's limits (or lack thereof) for delicious diableries. He is a by-word for evil: he brings small children to red light districts, and watches his loyal followers die with utmost serenity; he murders his caregivers, one innocent elderly couple after another; he teaches children to play on roof ledges and trip up homeless people on the street; one of his life goals is to cheerfully corrupt the man who had saved him from certain death. He does not have a moral justification for his actions, and he does not care one iota about whether the person he is going to kill (or lead to suicide) is guilty of anything more than offering a helping hand to the wrong person. And yet...

It's not quite the thorough mental torture from his childhood, nor the overwhelming love he bears for his sister. It's not that his sense of identity is extremely volatile to begin with, only to be further weakened by subliminal and explicit brainwashing. It's not that his loyalty to his mother's revenge is, if not admirable, then certainly sympathetic. It's all of these together—and the recognition of a monster within—that make him just as pitiable as he is horrific. He is a person guilty of so much—yet how can someone without a clear sense of self and with a morality so thoroughly perverted by external forces be held completely culpable? Johan is clearly a product of his environment, so to which degree are his actions, then, his own?


  • But that might be simplyfing things. We may assume that Johan is purely a product of his environment, but at the same time his sister went through exactly the same things he went through, and only he turned into such a homicidal maniac. Then there are the occasional hints of supernatural power and the implication that Johan is, in fact, The Antichrist. Certainly at no point do we see him "snap" and he seems like a perfectly normal, happy child until he and his sister are seperated from their which point he starts murdering and corrupting people a little too quickly to think that it was that which turned him in the titular monster. While trained from birth to be an amoral Ubermensch, why did it only work on him and not on Nina? And why did all attempts to replicate the experiments always produce "inferior" results—monsters, but none as monstrous as Johan. Perhaps his childhood did not create the evil within Johan, but merely unleashed and gave form to that which was there. The pity of Johan may be that he was doomed to be wicked all along, and indeed by the time of the main plot he is so evil that he has become bored with his own villainy.
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  • Just as it is in Real Life, it's likely both nature and nurture. We may assume that he’s merely a product of his environment or destined to be a monster, but neither explanation alone is sufficient. Regarding Johan and Nina's experiences, there were small differences in what they focused on and remembered. Johan remembered their mother switching them at the last minute, which left him wondering who was actually unwanted. (And in all likelihood...he probably thought it was him.) Nina didn't remember that, but she was told by Franz Bonaparta that they were "precious jewels" that mustn't become monsters. Depending on how you interpret the dialogue, Nina may have implied that this was the reason she didn't become a monster. Johan most likely wasn't told that because Nina was too shaken to talk about anything but her trauma. So in the end, Nina ended up with a mixed message and Johan ended up with a negative one. Now are these differences the only reason why they turned out the way they did? Of course not. It's heavily implied that there's something "special" about Johan, and even though Nina is his sister, I don't believe she has the capacity to become a monster of the same magnitude as her brother. Their basic personalities are quite different, and I would guess that Nina's optimism and ability to trust helped save her too. At the end of the day, Nina didn't have to believe what Bonaparta said. In fact, she had absolutely zero reason to. And yet a part of her must have, since even through all the terror she experienced she still felt that her life was worth enough to keep pressing on. If the situation was reversed and it had been Johan who had been sent instead, it would be less certain as to whether or not Johan would have bought it. It could have saved him or it could have had no effect at all. Furthermore, even without having heard Bonaparta's message, Johan had many, many opportunities to try and have a normal life. He could have chosen to let Nina be a good influence on him...but he didn't. Instead, he killed the first pair of adults who tried to help them and never turned back. Traumatized or not, that just isn't a normal reaction for a child to have. Nina was able to open herself up again to a degree and try to move on. Johan couldn't, and he couldn't allow himself to care about anyone else other than his sister and himself.
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  • Now, as far as if Johan ever snapped as a child, Nina’s recollections at the “Vampire’s House” can be taken as evidence that he cried at least once shortly after Nina came home from the Red Rose Mansion. This reflects a general pattern: You typically don’t get to see Johan cry or break down. Rather, it’s only implied. The only exceptions are during a certain conversation with Karl (which is dubious in its sincerity) and that one moment in the library where he fainted (which is meant to be Nightmare Fuel). This was done of course because Nothing Is Scarier, but it’s also an important way of maintaining the illusion of Johan being inhuman. Throughout the story, Johan is described as monstrous and otherworldly. And with the way he is presented, that notion becomes believable. We never get to see him do anything normal or mundane. Most of the time we only get to know of his abilities and acts from secondhand sources. And above all, we rarely see him express any genuine emotion. But in the end, Johan is a supposed to be a human being. Not a monster. Not a demon. Not The Antichrist (as much we all love to joke about it). A human being. And maybe that's what's really so frightening about him.

Characters as Devices

There is a literary tradition of introducing in your characters traits that will unequivocally produce one type of response—for example, Satan in Paradise Lost is depicted as a hero for a large part of the text—only to show the reader how easily his or her own opinions and ethics can be manipulated through his or her emotional response. Johan functions like this: his monstrosity is built up (arguably even exaggerated) to create in the reader a feeling of total repugnance and terror. His later revelation as a deeply disturbed character who may not even be in conscious and willful command of half of his actions tests the reader's ability to sympathize with a character who was previously so completely reviled.

It could be argued that the horrific extent of Johan's and Bonaparta's evil is used as a device to gage the reader's threshold for sympathy and forgiveness. The acts each of these commit are utterly despicable, yet the series asks us whether these people can still be redeemed. Even if Bonaparta's atonement can never measure up to the degree of damage that he has caused, he is nonetheless credited with Wim's goodness and perseverance even in the face of great tribulations and anguish; in this light, would it be right to take revenge upon him for his past actions? Would it be right to take revenge upon anyone, period?

Analogously, it could seem that Tenma's goodness—although nuanced, complex, and ultimately precluding him from committing a wrong that would potentially save numerous lives—is a similar exercise in stretching the extremes of human emotion and reaction. However, while Johan's evil would be used to establish the volatility of audience response, and, more importantly, our limits for pity and compassion, Tenma's goodness is deployed in order to see how lasting, enduring, and uncompromising good is.

Would Tenma have shot Johan at the end?

Depending on your interpretation of his character, Tenma is either shown as becoming more elastic in his morals and concessions— having shot Roberto, Kristof, and threatened various people (with dubious amounts of intent behind the threats), or much more rigid, realizing with increasing conviction that killing someone, even a killer, would be the wrong thing to do.

Wim's father takes the final decision away from him is often reviled as a contrived coincidence, but as Wim's presence itself is contrived, this is a moot point. Tenma could have disabled Johan with a non-fatal wound. What is indisputable, however, is that Tenma chose to save Johan. Not for Nina's sake, not to save Wim's father, not to follow Runge, but because he deemed it the correct thing to do.

Monster and Fairy Tales

Even apart from the subplot featuring Bonaparta's story books, Monster dedicates a surprising amount of time to fairy tale motifs and allusions. Casual references are strewn across the story: Eva references the Sleeping Beauty right in the first chapter, Nina's classmates tease her about her "prince charming," several chapters are named after fairy tales or their stock characters, Johan and Nina separately claim that they are from a "fairy tale town," Bonaparta sees himself as the Beast and Anna as the Beauty... and this is just the tip of the iceberg. This volume of references can hardly be incidental; but if they are intentional, what is their purpose?

The way most of the fairy-tale (as well as the biblical) allusions work within Monster is to give the characters—otherwise fully human—an archetypal dimension. Johan is not merely a victim of brainwashing nor a serial killer, but a monster equated with the Antichrist; Tenma is not merely a doctor with a heavy conscience and an extremely potent sense of right and wrong, but a messianic hero and a knight in shining armor; Bonaparta is not only a scientist in love with a woman who hates him, but an outright beast. In this way, Monster establishes itself as something greater and more universal than a crime story of a Japanese surgeon chasing a deranged youth across Germany—it becomes a story of archetypal good and evil without sacrificing any of its realism or originality.

The Nameless Monster

Halfway through the story there's a specific fairy tale. As cited above, all of these fairy tales have an archetypal dimension, but this particular one is underscored by having it part of the ending credits. Just a warning, the story is huge:

Once upon a time, there lived a monster without a name. The monster wanted a name so badly he couldn't stand it. So the monster decided to go off on a journey to find himself a name. But because the world was so big, the monster split in two and went on two separate journeys. One went east... and the other went west... The one that went east found a village. There was a blacksmith at the village entrance. "Mr.Blacksmith, please give me your name." "I can't give you my name." "If you give me your name, I will jump inside you and make you stronger in return." "Really? I'll give you my name if you can make me stronger." The monster jumped inside the blacksmith. The monster became Otto the blacksmith. Otto the blacksmith was the strongest man in the village. But one day... "Look at me! Look at me! The monster inside me has grown this big!" (Chomp. Munch. Crunch. Gulp.) The hungry monster ate Otto from the inside out. He went back to being a monster without a name. Even though he jumped inside Hans the shoemaker... (Chomp. Munch. Crunch. Gulp.) He went back to being a monster without a name again. Even though he jumped inside Thomas the hunter... (Chomp. Munch. Crunch. Gulp.) He still went back to being a monster without a name. The monster went to the castle to find a wonderful name. Inside the castle, there was a very sick boy. "I'll make you stronger if you give me your name." "I'll give you my name if you can cure my illness and make me stronger." The monster jumped inside the boy. The boy became very healthy. The king was delighted. "The prince is well! The prince is well!" The monster became fond of the boy's name. He also grew fond of his life inside the castle. That's why he endured even when he became hungry. Everyday, even when his stomach became very empty, he endured. But because he became so hungry... "Look at me! Look at me! The monster inside me has grown this big!" The boy ate his father, his servants, and everyone. (Chomp. Munch. Crunch. Gulp.) Because everyone was gone, the boy left on a journey. He walked and walked for days. One day, the boy met the monster that went west. "I have a name. It's a wonderful name." And then the monster that went west said, "I don't need a name. I'm happy even if I don't have a name. Because we're monster without names." The boy ate the monster that went west. Even though he now had a name, there was no one left to call him by his name... Johan. It's a wonderful name.

Now, this Nameless Monster could be any number of things, the unspeakable nature of this brainwashing, the horrors of war, the blind hatred that brought about this mess, all of these are causes of what Johan (the murderer, not the kid in the story) is. We could also talk about how similar to the monster of the story, Johan took not only the name of the kid of the story, but his sister's name. And he took his sister's experience and internalized it, killing in her name (she became like the Nameless Monster, forgetting the experience and becoming happy with herself, while he swallowed her experience and became the killer the disturbing brainwashing should have turned out).

Instead, let's turn our attention to this rather disturbing story. Human beings typically go to one of two paths in this life, ambition or contentment. That is, seeking success (a "name" for oneself), or seeking to be happy as one is. In psychology, sometimes they ask you a simple question "Who are you?" People will give all kinds of answers, from their given name, to their interests, to their position in life. But if people actually answer with these, it doesn't really answer the question.

In the search of contentment, the answer of this question is "I am Me." A person is happy with themselves, strength and faults, insecurities, and all. This doesn't mean complacency, but it means and end to striving for the approval of others (or as the story put, going inside of people and eating them from inside) to define us. A person's happiness is more or less stable, if they can manage this. This was the Nameless Monster at the end.

On the other hand, the vast mass of people seek after job titles or marital titles to make them happy. The average person goes after such signs of success as a way to define them, but typically they aren't happy ultimately (they get "swallowed up" by self-destructive behavior). Then there's one who is "successful" by adopting a name that sticks (like the boy), but use their name and clout to hurt others, this describes many upper-level businessmen in regard to their employees (it wasn't power that corrupted it was their ambition, if they didn't want the job, they'd probably be more decent to lower members. Of course, if they didn't want the job, they'd probably get fired for being too easy, so it really takes a rare person who does it, because someone has to). Of course, they are still "hungry" so the assistant manager wants to be manager, then president of the company, then they gobble up several smaller companies to be general manager of a whole unit of products. Oddly enough, this is also pretty close to the description of a serial killer, a seemingly charming person who takes on a persona to kill in the name of some reason. The only difference is that the serial killer goes through the motions without it actually being important to them, like they are playing a part. In a sense to a lesser extent, this is what this is, and some people will actually feel the strain of success, which is why there are murder mysteries and blackmail stories.

And what of the contented monster? Well, he got eaten. You see this all the time, farmers having their livelihood shut down by the bigger conglomerate either in their own field of mass scale farming, or by a third party like Target or Walmart. The "normal" people of this world see those truly honest with their faults as soft, and dispense with them (locking them away in mental institutions, or prisons if they are violent).

The Ending's Philosophy

A major criticism that has been leveled at Monster's ending is that it is a cop out. By having Wim's father shoot Johan, it's been said that the ending essentially robs the narrative of closure and doesn't force Tenma to confront the difficult choice he's been agonizing over for the entirety of the story. I think, however, that the ending's set-up is meant to illustrate the morals of the story while elucidating, with the characters as tools, the overarching philosophy of the series. In essence, the story is saying that it is always wrong to kill and killing should be done only to save life, when there are no other possible options. Saving innocent life is the only reason where you are justified in taking someone else's life — no one has the right to kill another because they've judged them to be evil or for revenge. Nina, essentially, represents the revenge aspect. She is chasing after her brother with the intention of killing him for the hell he's put her through and the lives he's destroyed. It's understandable to us, as the audience, why she would feel this way. And yet, one of the major themes of the story is how revenge only causes more bloodshed and suffering. This is most clearly demonstrated in Tenma's interactions with Milan Kolas who attempts to kill Peter Chapek in revenge for the loss of his son. In the end, all Milan accomplished was getting himself killed while hurting those who had come to love and respect him As Tenma says, "revenge only leads to more revenge" and it is when Nina realizes this that she can begin to forgive her brother. She sees how her hatred of him and her desire for vengeance merely contributed to the suffering.

Tenma is a bit more complicated in that he does not hate Johan on the personal level that Nina does but, instead, feels responsible for the destruction he causes as Tenma was the one to bring him back to life. This is yet another parallel with Milan, who helped Chapek get into Germany. Tenma's central issue is that he views Johan as a monster and thus sees it as his duty to put an end to his atrocities. He is, in essence, judging Johan as worthy of death for his crimes. And while we as the audience can sympathize with his frame of mind, the point that Urasawa is making is, in my opinion, quite subtle. It's not wrong that Tenma wants to help other people and protect them from Johan; what is wrong is that Tenma is essentially taking it upon himself to kill Johan because he has judged him as evil and in need of elimination. It gets to the core of the series' dynamics.

When Johan firsts asks why he can't go around killing people, Tenma responds:

"These are people's lives! Saving your life helped me open my eyes! I realized that all lives are equal! No one has the right to take away another's life!"

No person, no matter how good they are, has the right to kill another because they judge that person as evil. No matter their crimes. Urasawa, the way I interpret it, is essentially saying that murders occur when people treat others' lives as disposable or less than their own. But no matter what a criminal's prior actions, it is wrong simply to kill them because they are evil; all life has value. Tenma is one of the purest and most genuinely good characters in any of the fiction I've read. And Johan is certainly one of the most evil. But, regardless, Tenma has no right to kill Johan solely for being evil.

It is Wim's father, then, that holds the key. He alone is right to shoot Johan. He does so not out of revenge, not out of a sense of duty to correct a "mistake," but simply to protect his son's life. He doesn't know who Johan is or anything about his history. When he sees him, he simply sees a threat to his son and reacts accordingly to protect his child. As flawed as Wim's father is, he does love his son and that's why, I believe, he sees Johan as a "monster" — because in that moment, he's not reacting to Johan as a person, but to the very legitimate threat against one he loves. And he is right to do so.

Tenma's resolution, then, comes in his decision to once again save Johan's life. Here, he can finally accept that it was never wrong for him to have done so in the first place and that trying to help others, no matter their faults, is not wrong. There are no monsters, there are only monstrous actions.

  • While I can agree about this whole analysis, I think an important role is played by the He Who Fights Monsters trope. Tenma is a really idealistic character and definitely a good one, but during his mission to kill Johan, he almost forgets his ideals and goes dangerously close to losing his mind and becoming like the monster he wants to kill, which I believe was exactly what Johan wanted. When Tenma was about to shoot him, for example, Johan didn’t try to escape or react in any way. He just pointed at his forehead, challenging him to shoot. Maybe he knew that Tenma wouldn't have killed him, maybe not, but I think that’s not the point. I think the point is that Johan wanted Tenma to kill him. That way he’d have won the match; didn’t matter if he was dead, because the objective wasn’t killing Tenma or surviving the fight as much as it was destroying his ideals. Sparing Johan basically meant beating him at his own rules. While I don’t believe Tenma realized that, it could be a sort of poetic justice against Johan and the only way he could have been beaten.


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