Closing the cover on the last volume of Monster was like burying a friend. Like Vagabond, Berserk, Vertical / Viz’s Tezuka reprints and Blade of the Immortal, Monster is one of the few manga I know I will own long after many others have been given away or sold off. Assuming you can get the whole thing for an average of $7 a volume, it’ll be among the best $126 you’ll ever spend on any manga series.
The hardest part of talking about this final volume is the fact that there is little way to do it without ruining everything. So much of what makes Monster special and worth reading in the first place is the way things are revealed — how one character’s salvation is another’s curse, or how people who seem to be polar opposites in fact share both common origins and destinies. A plot summary also does not do justice to Naoki Urasawa’s dialogue and storytelling: it’s not just what happens, but the way he has his characters confront it and dramatize it. As fantastic as the circumstances may have been through this whole series, they have been happening to people we care about.
The first of those is, of course, Dr. Tenma himself. Here, at the end of his violent odyssey at last, he makes a crucial discovery about himself: he can’t completely submerge his promise to heal the sick beneath his determination to kill the incurable. But the more he learns about his target, Johan, the less he can see him as the real monster of the title — he’s just the end product of the work of other, equally sick men. Kill him and you accomplish nothing but creating the first corpse on a pile he would like to see reaching to the sky. And, ultimately, Tenma finds himself in the position of having to repeat himself: to once again spare Johan from death for the sake of a greater good.
Then there is Tenma’s nemesis, Inspector Lunge. Everything in his life that is not part of his manhunt for Tenma has been systematically weeded out. All that is left is pure need, like a mother for a child — but at the same time, the rational part of his mind that has guided him through all of this continues to nag him with questions about the missing pieces of the puzzle. Obsession isn’t enough to see him all the way through to the end of this horror; he has to temper it with the brains and wisdom that started him down this path in the first place.
Another figure that has emerged as critically important from the beginning is Nina, Johan’s twin sister. Thanks to Tenma’s help, she finds the redemption and the future she has sought all along. But it does not come without a price; namely, the price of remembering the past, wherein she realizes her own measure of culpability. She knew — without being told — what kind of beast her brother was, and failed to stop him despite her best efforts. That guilt rode with her for years — the sort of guilt that no human being should have to shoulder, one that mirrors Tenma’s own guilt and binds the two of them together all the more.
And finally, there is Johan, more a symbol and a destination for the characters’ journeys then a character himself. He only has two scenes in this volume, both of them short, but both of them pivotal and both of them face to face with Tenma. Each scene, in their own way, reinforces what Tenma has come to suspect all along. As terrible as Johan is, he would not be where he is today without the sum total of all the actions of the people behind him — including, tragically enough, his own biological mother.
The best thing I can say about this final volume is that it gives the series the ending it deserves. There is cataclysm; there is bloodshed; there is no end of staring into the abyss. But there is also redemption and closure and a measure of peace for all involved, good and bad. The very last panel does not give us a line of dialogue or even a human expression, but a simple image — one that forces us to think all the more deeply about everything that has become before. A perfect excuse to re-read the series, come to think of it.
Art: I was already familiar with Urasawa’s cheerful, straightforward art style from Yawara! and other works of his, so I wasn’t sure how well it would serve a story this bleak and gritty. To my surprise, it works extremely well to draw in a reader who might not normally pick up a title like this. Unlike most manga, the vast majority of the characters are Westerners, but are not depicted with the slightly off-kilter facial designs that most manga-ka use to set Westerners apart from Japanese. The only character who’s really set apart that far from the others visually is Tenma’s young patient — handsome, blonde, and with all too serene a face to do the things he does. This isn’t to say that Urasawa doesn’t make each character wonderfully distinct — he individuates everyone in the story beautifully — but he reserves an extra little touch of that for the Monster himself.
Translation: Monster gets the right-to-left treatment, with transparently-rendered dialog and FX left intact (although translated in a glossary at the end). Since most of the signs in the story were originally in German, they’ve been left as-is. It’s about as undistracting a job as I could ask for, especially since you’ll want as few distractions as possible given how fast you’ll burn through the book.
The Bottom Line: Consider this my praise: now that Monster is over, my first impulse is to go back to its beginning and start all over again. With Yawara!, Urasawa created a pleasing diversion; with Master Keaton, he’d become a superb craftsman; with Monster, he has become a necessity. And with 20th Century Boys, just now being released in English (look for my review of that soon), he is well on his way towards becoming indispensible.