Early on in volume four of Monster, Dr. Tenma pulls a gun on a bar full of neo-Nazi skinheads and growls, “Watch it, I have enough bullets for all of you” — not long after he’s threatened to shove a ballpoint pen into the carotid artery of one of the biggest bruisers in the place. (Nice thing about being a doctor: you know exactly where to stab someone to make them really bleed.)
This is not the only hint of how far Dr. Tenma’s come in his violent odyssey through the German underworld, but it’s one of the bluntest. The man who once worked tirelessly to save a young boy’s life has now evolved into a hardened and disciplined soldier of fortune, whose self-appointed mission is to seek out the young man that boy has grown up into, and kill him without mercy. He only does this because the boy he seeks, Johan, has become something infinitely more dangerous than Tenma could ever be: a predator who will seek out even other predators as his prey.
Welcome back to the single best reason to use up your sick days to get caught up on your reading. Everything I’ve seen of Monster so far has only cemented my conviction that this is not only a manga we’ll be reading decades after a great many others have lapsed out of print, but it’s one of the few manga that begs to be read by an audience that would otherwise never pick up a “graphic novel.” It’s at least as good a thriller as anything sporting the name “Clancy” or “Grisham,” and in a universe where there was true justice Monster would outsell all of them.
This time around, Johan is not the only one who’s dangerous. As we quickly learn, there are others in the same subterranean circles that Johan moves in — leftovers from Germany’s Fascist past, who look at Johan and see an opportunity to recreate the glory they had to abandon. Surely someone with that much charisma and native genius would not object to becoming a new Führer. The problem is that Johan exists to lead no one except himself, and would just as soon be happy with everyone else on the face of the earth dead — and if those trying to create a Fourth Reich have their way, it might just happen.
Meanwhile, Tenma’s hunt has led him back to someone else of crucial importance: Johan’s sister, “Nina Fortner,” who fled from her brother’s clutches to take refuge in the life of a prostitute. Unfortunately, all roads seem to lead right back to Johan, as the man she meets to obtain permission to work off the books is one of the neo-fascists. He, along with his cronies, trap Nina and use her as bait to lure Johan to them, while at the same time plotting a “purification” scheme to destroy most of the foreign quarter of a town. Tenma himself is sucked into the whole thing, and it isn’t long before both he and Nina are using every desperate trick they have to stop a massacre from unfolding.
It’s always interesting when a manga creator uses another country or culture (other than Japan, that is) as his subject. I liked how You Higuri attempted to use Renaissance-era Italy of the Borgias for Cantarella, even if she didn’t really have the dramatic chops to make that kind of thing stick. With Monster, though, Naoki Urasawa evokes modern-day Germany with uncanny insight and precision — it doesn’t quite feel like something a native would produce, more like a well-informed tourist, but a well-informed tourist is better than nothing at all. Urasawa is also a far better storyteller than Higuri: his bang-bang pacing, and the way he constantly ratchets the tension up in even the intercalary scenes — he can find tension in nothing but a scene of two men on a park bench talking — puts him far ahead in that department.
Another interesting element that surfaces strongly in book four (although there were hints of it earlier) is the theme of immigrants or “guest workers” in Germany, mostly Turkish. Not all of them are involved in honest work, but that’s life — and the Turks have a great sense of solidarity amongst them that turns out to be one of their most powerful assets. It’s a subject I know slightly better than casually, given that both my parents are Turkish and my father spent a decent amount of time in Germany after WWII as a guest worker of sorts himself. Urasawa portrays the Turkish populace with sympathy and taste, and I imagine at least some of the way he approaches the subject has been informed by the similar situation of Japan’s own “guest workers” — the Brazilians, Iranians, Taiwanese, Thai, and Vietnamese who come to Japan to find something halfway better than what they’re offered at home.