I’ve talked about the challenge of talking about big work in the past. I sometimes use the term mile wide pie, where some experiences are so time consuming or have some single facet engaging enough that you can’t really judge the work as a whole. All I can do, really, is talk to you about my experience of the thing, but how can I do that without simply sitting by your side as I recount the whole thing? I don’t think there’s an interest in me doing a Manga Reread Podcast or something like that. Monster is a big series – eighteen volumes of manga, filled with short stories and diversions that reinforce the central theme of the story, things I could leave out of the retelling but which still matter to the story. Then there’s an anime, a rare example of an almost perfectly faithful adaptation that does as little as possible to change the original work, yet highlights just how tightly the manga is devised.
What I can offer instead then is a sort of snapshot. A handful of moments, things that stand out to me in a work that resonated with me powerfully. Before we go on, though, two warnings. One, I will talk about some of the events in this series.
Two, this series gets a lot of content warnings. It is not a light series, it is not a breezy read. Without comprehensive review, the book features child endangerment (and how), suicide, depression, repressed memories, child abuse, enfant terrible, actual literal real neo-Nazis, Hitler Stuff and good old fashioned violence, but really it’s quite sedate there. This is not gory, it is terrible. It is a horror story. It is an extremely horrifying horror story. It is also uplifting, and humanising, and helped me feel whole.
I want to talk to you about Monster.
Horror, largely, derives from empathy. It derives from an ability to recognise the humanity of victims, people you can care for, people you can fear for. People whose fates and whose lives are real enough to you that they matter, that you care about them. Even if you hate them or want them to be brought to justice, most horror wants to tether your feelings to the wellbeing of others and then focus that. In horror movies, this threat tends to be condensed, usually over a small time frame. Even the longer horror movies tend to take place over a few days, and a few over a few months.
Most of the time this is to give you a very simple view of these characters, so you understand them and can understand why they die. In a big horror work, in a horror series, especially one that builds up so slowly and over so many days, it’s not necessary to compress the narrative like that – we spend years with these characters, we can see how they grow and change or how they don’t.
Here’s your starting premise: A surgeon is presented with a classic moral quandrary; do they save the politically expedient rich politician on the orders of their boss, or do they save the child with a head wound who arrived first, against the orders of that boss?
And then, when the surgeon does the right thing, and watches his life fall apart because of that choice, what’s he to do, how’s he supposed to react, when all the people who wronged him suddenly drop dead? What just happened?
This is the story at the core of Monster: A man is given a moral choice, and makes the right one, damn the consequences. Then the consequences grow out of what he could expect, and he finds himself, once again, trying to make the right choice, and trying to work out what’s going on.
Most horror doesn’t have a good foundation. It’s not about that. It’s not about knowing where its ideas come from, or what that means. It’s just about the visceral experience of those moments when things happen, the relief at surviving or the despair at not. It doesn’t tend to want to spend a long time working through its ideas, or show you the spiralling underpinning of what’s going on. You can usually know a horror series has lost it when it starts going into backstory of established figures.
The horror of Monster, the world of it, wants to make sure you understand, completely unambiguously what made this happen. Or perhaps more closely, what didn’t make this happen.
Perhaps I’m a sucker for this horror story that plays with the idea of formative media, of creating art that has horrible impacts. There’s a sort of awkward actor-agent theory going through the whole series, with everything showing large or small ways they’re connected, to one another in an immediate sense, but also to the things that other things are connected to. There’s things like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the racial tensions in Turkey, the corrupt police of Czechoslovakia, immigration of a Japanese doctor all as connecting tissue that create the backdrop of Monster, and all of it plays into the ways that our villain – and hero, I suppose – both enforce and reject worldviews.
It’s a breathtakingly tight series. It’s thoughtful and it’s dense.
It’s also scary, and it’s creepy, and it doesn’t make the mistake of thinking those two things are the same. It’s a series that wants to talk about the damage we have and whether or not we are beholden to it, and yet also at the same time, about how we are still affected by it, whether we live it or not.
What made Monster resonate with me, I feel, was that through it all, while the story talks about damage, and how we are shaped by our environment, it never stops paying attention to choices. It never shies back from the idea that these characters are all making a choice. There are decisions made, and actions committed to and in some cases, things that you might think should be easy choices are agony, and hard choices become blissfully simple.
It’s a wonderfully taut, suspenseful story, and it also shows the humanity of people who have been made to be monsters. It asks you whether the world is bright, or dark, and who you believe.
Then it shows you.
My life is not the life shown in this story.
But bits of it rhyme.