This review contains spoilers
It's fairly rare that I can sum up all of the problems I have with a single word but with Monster, there is only one word that can accurately sum it up; over-complicated. Monster is one of the most over-complicated anime I think I've ever seen. Don't get me wrong, I can very much appreciate what Naoki Urasawa, the author or the original manga, was trying to do and the fact he tried to write a story with this kind of scope is admirable but I can't help but feel the execution needs a lot of work. In case you're not familiar with the series, Monster revolves around Dr. Kenzo Tenma; a skilled neurosurgeon working in a hospital in Germany during the 80s. When a young boy comes in who is in vital need of surgery right before the mayor of the town also gets rushed to hospital, Tenma is forced to make a difficult choice. He chooses to save the boy, named Johan, but when he grows up to become a serial killer, Tenma takes it into his own hands to fix his mistake. I'm missing out the finer details but that's the general idea.
You might think that this sounds fairly simple but that is far from the truth. Whilst the story is technically about Dr. Tenma trying to find and kill Johan, the real plot sees Dr. Tenma finding out what made Johan into a killer by tracking down people from his past, leading to Tenma uncovering a huge conspiracy that happened years ago. This leads into my first issue with the series; it's all tell and no show. Most of the time, characters will just talk about various events in the past but it's very rare that we actually see what's happening. This makes it quite hard to get a good picture of the events that happened and the order they happened in. Even by the end, I still have no idea the exact order that most of the events happened in and this made it incredibly confusing. I think that flashback episodes would have solved this problem easily and would have been much appreciated, especially towards the end of the show when everything is revealed and there aren't any twists left to spoil by actually showing the flashbacks. I also took issue with the way characters in general were handles. This show has so many people you could class as a 'main character' that it actually gets in the way of following the story. It can sometimes go a ton of episodes without showing a main character, to the point where I genuinely forgot what said character was doing. Since a lot of the story also relies heavily on characters finding out information about the past, characters being absent for long stretches of time meant I quickly forgot which characters knew which details and which didn't, which just added to the confusion.
I feel that this is the one and only anime I think I've ever seen that would have honestly benefited from having recap episodes. I genuinely never thought I'd say that. I can appreciate appreciate a complex anime on some level but I think this might have been a better show if it solely focused on Dr. Tenma and his attempts to track down Johan instead of having this hugely sprawling story. They could have kept the plot entirely in tact but having it from a single perspective instead of from many would have made it way easier to digest in my opinion. Saying that, I still think that the middle portion of the story that focused on Max Schuwald could have been excised completely as it is mostly superfluous and feels like padding. As for the ending, I also felt a little let down. It felt like such an anticlimax and I also felt that leaving such a lengthy series that is obviously not going to get a sequel on such an open ended note was a mistake.
The final thing I'll say about the plot is I often found myself asking questions that never got answered, which sometimes led to plotholes. Characters would just suddenly known information and not a single clue would be given as to how characters obtained said information. You could just make assumptions on how but I really don't like making assumptions, it just makes me think the writers were too lazy to think of anything themselves. I'll give Monster the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it did give hints and the like that I just didn't pick up on, but I'm still sure there were a ton of minor questions that went unresolved by series end.
On the character side, I feel that Monster is much better. Characters such as Eva, Tenma's wife, and Nina, a college girl, and their character's journeys may be my favourite aspect of the show. It kind of makes me laugh, that a series that is supposed to have this amazing storyline and I was way more impressed with the characters rather than the plot. My only issue on the character front is, again, some characters go so long without screentime yet others get way more than I feel is necessary considering their relevance to the plot. The sheer amount of characters is also pretty overwhelming, with some being kind of unimportant and like they could have had their role reduced down. Dr. Tenma himself, the closest thing Monster gets to a protagonist, is probably one of the weaker characters on the whole, and I would have liked a bit more to have been done with him. I also found Johan to be kind of a frustrating character. It is hard to go into it without spoiling it but I always felt like he was seriously lacking a motivation and he was always lacked a real long term goal.
The one part of Monster I can't fault in any regard is the production. Madhouse is a studio that has yet to disappoint on the animation front and this is no exception. I've only seen a handful of Madman titles, Monster, Hunter x Hunter, One Punch Man and Ninja Scroll, and this is definitely their most down to Earth anime out of the ones I've seen, being the only one that lacks fantastical elements. However, despite being a bit out of their wheelhouse as far as I can tell, they nailed the grittiness and tone the story has. I also really liked the character designs, with every character feeling very unique but still mundane and normal looking. The dub cast did a superb job here too and whilst I haven't heard the Japanese, I can't imagine watching it any other way. You wouldn't be surprised the dub is good when you look a the cast, which is pretty much a who's who of anime voice actors which include the likes of Liam O'Brien, Tara Platt, Richard Epcar, Wendee Lee, Stephanie Shea, Laura Bailey, Derek Stephen Prince and many more.
Whilst I do think Monster was a disappointment, it's far from bad and is still very good. It just isn't quite as good as everyone makes it out to be. I feel it would be something that improves over multiple views but at over 70 episodes long, I won't be revisiting it anytime soon.
Original Publish Date: 6/5/16