When you think anime you tend to jump to shows likes Naruto, Dragonball Z or One Piece. Overblown fight sequences with planet-destroying consequences. Slow-motion battles that take several episodes to resolve themselves, sentimental flashbacks and talking. Dear god, the talking. Impossible monologues that go on forever without mercy.
And I have no problem with that! I love those shows and all that comes with them. But the Narutos of the world represent a small – albeit extremely popular – part of anime's broad suite. If you dig deeper, you'll find a slew of world-class shows unlike anything you've ever seen before.
Shows like Monster, for example.
Currently streaming on Netflix for the first time, Monster is an epic mystery show based – panel for panel – on the multi-award-winning manga by celebrated artist Naoki Urusawa. In Monster our protagonist, Dr. Kenzo Tenma, is a genius Japanese surgeon caught up in a maze of conspiracy and intrigue after saving a child from certain death. A child that grows up to become the sinister Johan, the main antagonist of the show and the result of a eugenics experiment designed to create the perfect soldier.
Monster is a multilayered masterpiece that sprawls across Europe. Starting in Germany and expanding into the Czech Republic, Tenma attempts to right the wrongs he believes he made in saving the monstrous Johan, a sociopath who leaves a trail of chaos, death and destruction wherever he sets foot.
Tenma's mission is simple: Find the odious Johan, whose life he once saved, and kill him.
But in Monster, nothing is simple. Everything is complex and confusing – in a good way. Multitudes of well-drawn characters are introduced over Monster's flawless 74-episode run. Some surprise you, all are memorable. One by one, each has their time in the sun, via tight concentric arcs that feed seamlessly into the show's major threads – but the grim specter of Johan, the show's "monster," is omnipresent. He hangs over every interaction like a dense fog, complicating issues, obscuring truths. On the few occasions Johan shows up, you hold your breath. The magic of Monster is the manner in which you, the viewer, get sucked into Johan's vortex. There's a light charm to his evil. Even in animated form, there's a gravity to his charisma.
And there's fear too. This is a villain who kills without mercy, but never without thought.
I'm still not 100% certain Monster gets the ending the show deserves. I remember feeling confused. Underwhelmed? Maybe. That's a running theme in much of Urusawa's work. I felt the same with Urasawa's other acclaimed manga like 20th Century Boys and Billy Bat. But Monster comes closest to creating something worthy of its neatly crafted web of intrigue. I won't spoil it, but it's messy. And it denies viewers the catharsis we might have craved after dozens of episodes chasing a ghost throughout Europe. But maybe that's the point. We can't atone for our mistakes, or change our history with acts of violence. We can save ourselves through peaceful means. That's our responsibility.
Monster is a show that's been notoriously difficult to consume legally. That's worth noting. Having the ability to easily watch this from start to finish on a mainstream service almost feels like a privilege at this point. Don't waste it.