To read Naoki Urasawa’s Monster is to guess at life-or-death motivations. A young, gifted Dr. Tenma chooses to defy his boss’s orders and operate on a child instead of the mayor of the city. The child lives and the mayor dies. Nine years later, Tenma is horrified to discover that the child he saved has become a serial killer.
Described in the book jacket and many reviews of the manga and anime series, this premise gives away much of the plot for book one of the recent Perfect Editions, combinations of two average-length volumes, complete with thicker cover material and two color sequences. The pleasure of this book, then, is watching all the pieces placed on the board and moved into their starting arcs. Dr. Tenma’s series-defining decision is predated by an identical, earlier moral dilemma. Inspectors and witnesses establish their personas early on, to be sharpened once the main investigation begins. By the end of book one, Tenma and the killer have a brief encounter, the aftermath of which leaves the whole plot a shambles—mysteries to be continued!
Following these mysteries requires a certain level of maturity, reflected by the Older Teen rating of the book. Although there are some gruesome moments that depict bloody corpses, detailed surgical procedures, and a man who’s been shot in the head, the book is to be commended for the bar it sets for readers’ attention spans. This isn’t to suggest that the story is boring; rather, it resembles Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that the audience is aware of the central conflict, but they’ll have to watch several themes and characters develop and converge before the main event takes place. Tenma takes time to speak to his fellow doctors and patients; emerging characters are given the benefit of a fleshed-out normal life before being plunged into the dramatic horror.
Urasawa’s artistic style falls squarely in the genre of realism; there are no chibi figures or superhuman gag panels. Aside from a couple of children depicted in flashbacks, the story is populated entirely by adults, including many middle-aged men with unique hairlines, facial structures, and wrinkles. Urasawa makes it easy to invest in his characters when they’re all so distinct. This applies to the ladies, too, who all have human proportions, wardrobes, and may even function outside Tenma’s portion of the plot (a manga fan can dream).
The advantage of Urasawa’s realism is that it lends gravitas to his twists. We know the serial killer won’t start snapping necks with superhuman strength, nor will Tenma develop psychic intuition that tells him where the killer is hiding. No, this story will be propelled by detectives who must put the clues together themselves. The weirdest things in this book are the detective who physically acts out typing his notes into his brain, and the repeated use of poisoned candy as a murder weapon. What remains is the suspense of what will happen next, how, and when. Personally, I found much of this first book easy to second-guess, which led to some impatience on my part, but newer Urasawa readers may not be so jaded. Nonetheless, I have no clue what to expect in book two, and I certainly look forward to tailing this monster wherever it leads me.
Monster, vol. 1: The Perfect Edition
by Naoki Urasawa
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)