Monster is a fictional masterpiece that can be interpreted from many different angles – from an exploration of personal identity to a theory on the creation of “monsters”. Its historical context (beginning from 1986 with many references to post-WWII Germany/Chezhoslovakia and the Fall of the Berlin Wall) grounds the story in reality, with many realistic character backstories that students of history will undoubtedly appreciate.
The story revolves around Kenzou Tenma, who was on the fast medical career track as a genius neurosurgeon in Dusseldorf’s largest hospital. He was set to marry the director’s daughter and receive a line of promotions, while carrying out his research. However, his own decision to prioritize saving the life of a child instead of a politician overturned all those plans overnight. By sticking to his personal belief of doing what’s right, he symbolizes moral naivete and innocence. Little did he know, the child named Johan he saved was in fact, a serial killer (a “monster”). The basic plot is centered around his journey to track Johan down, along with many side character development arcs that all weave together in the end.
Of the many questions raised in the anime, I want to mention the recurring themes of identity and “monsters”. The story identifies the absence of one’s personhood as a primary motivator to one losing his/her humanity. Johan was one such case. His backstory and upbringing made him witness to what he calls the landscape of absolute solitude, one he analogizes with one of his favorite story. A central metaphor used is one’s name, and various characters reiterate how we should cherish our names. This is due to many characters of the show having lost their names and identities – some from their experience in a fictional Old East Germany orphanage which conducted inhumane experiments to brainwash children. Johan was no different, except he was the first to harness this inhumanity into a sort of ideological revolution. Commanding exceptional talent and charisma, he accrued many followers in the story from an extreme right-wing organization (who saw him as the new Hitler) to dark money organizations to ordinary criminals who carried out his orders. Throughout the early parts of the story, he was thus described as pure evil, a psychopath who killed “just because”. This contrasts completely with Kenzou Tenma’s moral naivete, and this dualism of good vs. evil drives most of the viewer’s binary interpretation of individuals.
Near the story’s end, the light at the end of the tunnel begins to appear. As Johan’s backstory and motivations were made clearer, it became apparent his true intentions. Seemingly unsalvageable characters re-obtain their humanity, and backstories are told at the right time to connect the dots. Forgiveness becomes the name of the game, which intertwines with the return of identity. Bad memories are discarded, and happy ones are made. “People are such strange beings. The sad memories seem to just fade away, until all a person is left with are the happier ones. People are certainly designed so conveniently.”
As to how the central plot around Tenma and Johan resolves, you’ll just have to see yourself!