Monster is an introspective work on the human condition; it challenges our understanding of good and evil through the collection of very personal stories interwoven with our protagonist’s chase of the titular monster. A recurring theme throughout this journey is that of the duality of the things that we perceive; coins are always two-sided Urasawa reminds us. Motifs such as the personal struggle of some characters or historical events support this theme throughout this journey and Urasawa uses these devices to skillfully play with our perspectives and assumptions.
Our protagonist Dr Kenzo Tenma, a genius surgeon, is himself of two minds at the start of the series. He is a man that would like to believe in the intrinsic value of human life but everything and everyone constantly reminds him of the contrary, that the worth of human life is relative. Dr Tenma would, however, reach an epiphany, following the death of a Turkish worker for which he is blamed, that every life is equal. That would lead him to save the life of a young boy, but as he would later learn even the most prima facie straight forward situations can be mired in grey morality. As young Johann proves to be seemingly a person of abject evil, Dr Tenma is thrusts into a dilemma that threatens to collapse his whole moral grounding. Dr Tenma becomes a man ripped in half, confused and lost as to the understanding of morality that he thought he had reached.
Yet, Urasawa does not portrait Tenma as a one-dimensional character; as he travels in his quest to make amends for the deaths that have resulted from his action, he actively struggles to reconcile the path he is currently on with his moral beliefs. Tenma teeters on the line between light and darkness.
This posits Tenma as an ideological opposite to Johann, as the latter is a character that grounds himself in nihilism. The evil he has seen and heard in his chilhood have beckoned more darkness. On the other hand, Tenma believes in the intrinsic value of human life, as he would show throughout his story he is willing to save anyone’s life, whatever their situations might be. He trusts in the humanity of people, a stance that is supported by the shows varied portrayal of seemingly villainous characters in a more humane light; Baby is revealed before his death to crave companionship, love and understanding, while the stoic inspector Lunge, initially portrayed as more machine than man, gradually lets on to his deeper regrets about his shortcomings as a father and a husband.
Interestingly, Urasawa further plays on the contrast and parallels between Tenma and Johann through these ideological portrayals. Where Johann’s brand of nihilism does not falter, being executed with swift, calculated ruthlessness and disregard for human life. Tenma is always struggling to reconcile his quest to kill Johann with his ideology; it is less pure than that Johann’s. Urasawa underlines his belief that human existence itself is such, tainted by ideological struggles and moral dilemmas; in a sense, if anything makes Johann a monster, it is the pureness of his acts.
Differing ideologies are often at the centre of conflict and by extrapolation at the core of how society is and was. None is still more vivid in our minds than that of the cold war, a conflict that pit the capitalist values of the west and the burgeoning communism of the east. Monster’s story derives much of its flair from being mostly set on the backdrop of a Germany very much in the fallout of the wall of Berlin; the wall might have fallen but the scars it made have not yet mended. Throughout Tenma’s journey, he is constantly reminded of the horrors that a world divided created; Neo-Nazis, poverty and racism are a part of Tenma’s journey. We witness time and time again the horrors of a world where we shun and fear the ‘other’ and the ‘outsider’ of our societies, yet through the interaction of the main cast with a variety of people, such as the Turkish neighbourhood of Munich, Urasawa underlines the humanity of the people that populate the world.
The historical aspect of the show also helps in grounding Johann as a product, not of Machiavellian scheming, but rather of the time. Yet, this enigmatic portrayal that wanes and waxes throughout the story makes Johann all the scarier; Urasawa’s monster is not a creature out of a fairy tale, rather Johann Liebert times and times again sheds his veil of darkness to remind us that the only monsters are those that we create.
Beyond Urasawa’s use of Tenma as a part-foil, part-parallel to Johann, the latter’s twin sister also plays a crucial role in our understanding, or lack thereof, of Johann. Nina is a seemingly normal girl with friends, family, ambition and dreams. When she is introduced as an adult she creates a stark contrast with our expectations of what a monster’s twin sister would be like; the ineluctable literary parallel that is derived from the introductions of twins in a story is here subverted, as the reader would never reasonably fathom these two characters to be siblings, let alone twins, if not for prior knowledge.
This has the effect of further deepening the mystery surrounding Johann. But as the story progresses and Nina goes on her own journey for truth, we see the parallel lives of Johann and Nina slowly converging. Ultimately, intersecting at a point of chaos where the duality of Nina and Johann meld to become indistinguishable.
Urasawa’s decision to make Johann and Nina identical from one another as children and in presenting to us the experiences they have lived at the Red Rose Mansion in such a way effectively destroys our understandings of the line between light and darkness; where prior parts of the story had subverted our expectations, here Urasawa ideologically does away with any lingering beliefs in a monolithic understanding of good and evil, replacing it instead with a singularity of chaos.
Duality in monster, whether stylistic or ideologic, has a clear purpose: to be proof of its own non-existence. Urasawa and Madhouse continually play with their audience’s expectations and assumptions; where Monster starts as a struggle of ideology through strong parallels and contrasts within its themes and characters, it ends by reminding us that ultimately human beings are fundamentally the same.