“You and your bookworm theories,” the killer growls to the forensic psychologist. “I’m telling you a real monster exists.” That monster’s name is Johan, and while he doesn’t appear once in the pages Monster Volume 5, he casts a shadow that stretches through all of the events that unfold throughout the book. That shadow lands most darkly on Dr. Tenma, the surgeon who saved Johan’s life as a boy all those years ago and has now watched him grow into a figure of such diabolical evil that few people would even credit him with existing. But exist he does, and now Tenma has fled into the underground of Germany to find Johan himself and kill him.
I’m starting to sense a pattern with the Monster books, but not a bad one — it’s a pattern that has been devised to complement the storytelling Naoki Urasawa employs for this dark epic. In each volume Tenma encounters someone with a history — a person who has a bit of their own darkness, much as we all do. Sometimes Johan got there first and was able to exploit that darkness for his own sake; sometimes it’s just something that spills out of the closet and onto the floor.
The first such encounter covers a good third of the volume, and deals with Tenma drawing on a classmate from college, Rudy Gillen, to decipher key pieces of the Johan puzzle. Gillen is an accomplished dissector of the criminal mind; he currently has his hands full with a serial murderer named Jurgens, responsible mostly for the deaths of pretty young girls. But he also strangled an older woman, Mrs. Kemp, in her own home, possibly to throw the police off. One of the very best things about this series is how it is uncommonly smart when it comes to things like the behavior of serial killers. Jurgens is depicted as a snide little sadist who happened to be smart enough to stay a step ahead of the cops, not a superhuman Lecter-like figure. (That role is reserved for Johan, but even Johan is deployed in such a way that he’s credible.)
Gillen and Tenma have some bad blood between them — Tenma spotted the other man cheating on a key exam — but they are willing to set that aside to compare clues. Or so it would seem. Gillen is, as it turns out, at least partly buying into the prevalent police theory about Tenma having a split personality (and consequently responsible for the murders Johan has been committing). The way this part of the story resolves is striking and grimly ironic: what one man thought was a lifelong grudge was in fact nothing of the kind, and under the skin we are all guilty of one thing or another.
Tenma’s odyssey leaves him briefly in the company of a British couple of many years, vacationing in Germany. No, not so much vacationing as trying to exorcise a few demons: “Our son killed a man,” the father says grimly, “but he’s not evil.” That twinge of uncertainty is what makes them see Tenma’s picture on a WANTED poster and yet let him slip away: they can look in Tenma’s eyes and see that he is not a killer, just a desperate man who needs half a chance. Urasawa constantly comes back to the notion of “moral man versus immoral society” — individual people making choices that they hope will reflect on the goodness of man as a whole, even when it would superficially mean doing something “wrong,” like letting a suspected felon go free.
Another real test of morality comes when we see another figure from the tangled mess of Tenma’s past: Michael Muller, one of the two crooked police detectives sent to kill Nina Fortner’s adoptive parents. Muller has money in the bank and a wife and child who know nothing of his sins. And while Muller is able to smile to them and sip drinks by the pool in his huge house in the country, he’s wracked with guilt and fear over what he’s done. The way he got into that mess to begin with was wretched enough: he and his partner were reselling confiscated drugs on the black market, and an anonymous party blackmailed him with that information. His price for getting off the hook: kill the Fortners and pin the mess on Tenma.
The thin veneer of normalcy covering Muller’s existence is smashed clean open when he meets the last person he expects to ever encounter: Nina Fortner. She is not afraid to kill him, but it’s also hard for her to swallow the possibility that he was being exploited himself. And then there is the return of Inspector Lunge, the maddeningly logical and persistent detective who will bring Tenma to justice if it’s the last thing he does. His character seems inspired, however loosely, by the single-minded Marshal Samuel Gerard (as so memorably embodied by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie The Fugitive); nobody else’s theories about what is going on are remotely as important as the mission in front of him. He finally corners Tenma at the end of the book…but then has the tables turned on him by the absolute last person you’d expect.
I’ve said in previous reviews for Monster that this series deserves the kind of attention lavished on John Grisham or Stephen King bestsellers. It is at least as good as any of them, if not more so, and in fact the more I think about it the more I realize this wouldn’t make a bad starting point for someone crossing over from more conventional reading into manga as a whole. (I also hope the live-action movie slated to come out in 2009 brings a few people to it as well…)