Monster – 5-6
It is kind of amazing how Monster is able to do so much with so little at times.
On the one hand, these episodes may highlight Monster‘s biggest flaw to those who would see it as a flaw — the series is perhaps too faithful to the manga, which can sometimes result in a tortuously slow pace. (This is probably my inexperience speaking, but is there a more faithful manga-to-anime adaptation than Monster? There are a few things changed, of course, but for the most part, it is as if the manga panels themselves have been animated. It really speaks to the strength of Urasawa’s storytelling that Madhouse basically decides, “You know what? Let’s not mess with a good thing here.”) How much happens in ep5, for instance? We see Nina engaging in her daily activities, speaking with a therapist (and setting off a red flag in all first-time viewers), Dr. Tenma retracing Johan’s steps and Nina fainting after catching a glimpse of Johan while meeting a boy she thinks sent her a romantic (and creepy, really) e-mail. No more, no less.
However, the pace never struck me as a problem — and it still does not. Why? Because the story expertly builds on the mounting dread. The viewer knows — or at least senses — there is something wrong with Nina Fortner from the start. She is almost too perfect. Nina is able to rattle off an excellent legal analysis even while tired and late to class. She is beautiful, kind, humble and desired. She takes her job as a pizza delivery woman as seriously as she takes her law studies. She is an adept fighter who can kick any guy’s ass without a second thought. She loves her parents and keeps up a good relationship with them. But, of course, this is Monster. The first four episodes have shown the viewer that just below the surface of perfection lies madness.
After this opening montage showing the pure, happy life of Nina Fortner, we learn that for years she has had nightmares of monsters reaching out from the darkness for her. And once Nina leaves, the therapist opines to himself that believes Nina may be overcompensating due to some darkness deep within her. By now, the observant viewer may be able to guess that Nina is Johan’s missing twin sister, Anna. (I honestly do not remember if I did. Knowing me, it really could have gone either way — I’ve shown aptitude for both sharp guesses and completely overlooking the obvious in the past, haha.) But nonetheless Monster plows on, doling out hints both small and large with Nina’s small breakdown upon analyzing the case of the murdered family to Tenma getting bits and pieces about Johan from neighbors who briefly knew Johan from the short time he spent in a foster home under the name of “Michael”.
It all culminates in Nina seeing Johan, those memories barely — almost imperceptibly — seeping through the minute cracks of her subconscious and her fainting.
Now, the reason I believe episodes like this one work so well — when they are executed correctly — is the simple fact that they know their place in the Monster hierarchy. Monster is a 74-episode series. That is slightly more than five-and-a-half cours. Even in a single-cour season, one has to accept that not every episode in a given series is going to be a classic. The non-classic episodes do not have to be bad, per se. They simply fill a role. Think of an anime like a championship basketball team: You have your elite players (the arc-ending episodes, or particularly good standalones like “The Worst Thing”), the sidekicks who are quite talented but naturally defer to the leader (really good middle-of-the-arc episodes that build to the finales) and players who have a certain role on the team and unselfishly do their job each game (episodes like this one that get the ball rolling on arcs, or that build character for moments that will pay off down the road).
“The Girl from Heidelberg” is a building block episode, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. It achieves what it sets out to do — introduce Nina Fortner/Anna Liebert in a relatively compelling way, raise some questions about her and deliver on the rising tension throughout the episode with a creepy ending. That is all it needs to do, and the episode does it well.
And along the way, we learn that Johan loves war stories because of the absolute fear of death inspired in the soldiers who had to endure terrifying circumstances. Thinking about it now, that small portion of story is actually a somewhat brilliant subversion — Nazis have for a long time been classic villains of fiction (and for good reason, of course). The blind man Tenma talks to about Johan was a Nazi. And the story the man tells about absolute fear . . . could Johan’s reaction to this be a commentary on the viewer? How many people — including myself — have had a great time over the years watching the Nazis get their comeuppance in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Inglourious Basterds? Patton? Playing Wolfenstein? Johan, like many viewers, is kind of getting off on that absolute fear these people fear before they go kaput — the “they’re getting what they deserve” effect (although the fear itself is what fascinates Johan rather than who exactly feels the fear).
Not that I want to ruin the fun — who the hell wouldn’t cheer for Indiana Jones to defeat those bastard Nazis? — but this moment between Tenma and the old man is a startling reminder that no matter where a person goes, there are good people, bad people and people everywhere in between. No exceptions.
Even though ep6 is an episode that plays a similar role to the previous episode, it has always been a sentimental favorite of mine. I think it is because I like Mauler’s character type so much — the gruff, cynical reporter whose heart beats strongly below his ribs. It’s a classic journalist stereotype, but as someone who has worked with and around reporters for a decent amount of time, there is definitely some truth to the sketch. With the things they see, they have to be tough to endure, and yet you do not become reporter if you do not feel something for those on whom you report. (Or, rather, you do not become a reporter and like it if you do not feel this way.)
Tenma is the type of person who probably inspired Mauler to become a reporter. He has a problem that sounds absurd on the surface — Tenma is tracking a man, Johan, who murdered not only the higher-ups at Tenma’s hospital but also the foster parents who took him in over the years. And he had a twin sister. There is a chance the two made a stop in Heidelberg many years ago. If so, there may be a clue to their whereabouts now.
Mauler, like Lunge, understandably reacts to this with skepticism. But unlike Lunge, who operates solely based on facts (he is like the creepy German version of Det. Sgt. Joe Friday), Mauler’s emotions are stirred by Tenma when he sees that the doctor has been researching through the night. “Could there possibly be something to that story?” Mauler likely thinks. “Or is he just delusional?” Mauler takes Tenma out for breakfast because he feels sorry for the guy. And then Tenma naturally does what he does — he senses something wrong with Mauler and tries to help in his own way. Mauler’s stubbornness, dedication to his work and self-destructive smoking habit drove his wife and kid away. Tenma is not condescending when he suggests Mauler seek out his wife again; he simply sees that Mauler loves her and would be best getting back with her.
That is when Mauler wakes up to Tenma. He is not some nutcase using the newspaper’s archives for God knows what purposes. He’s a human. There is something he cares about deeply at that moment. It reminds Mauler that, once upon a time, he also cared deeply for people. He cared about helping. He cared about the truth. So he helps Tenma get to the truth so that he can protect someone. It is a simple story, a simple arc and simple character development that always struck a chord with me. Poor Mauler (and Nina’s adoptive parents) deserves much more than he gets at the end of the episode. (Sorry, slight spoiler for those who are through ep6 only, although it must not be surprising to learn their fates.)
Some other quick notes:
– I love Nina/Anna. It says something about Monster‘s excellent cast that a fantastic, compelling character like her isn’t even in my top five favorites (although that could very well change on second viewing), but I love her nonetheless. She is so spirited and so strong — her goodness is an interesting parallel to Tenma, because Nina actually possesses the will and ability to hurt — or even kill — a person, while Tenma is . . . well, he’s Tenma. There is a reason he is a doctor and not a martial artist.
– Fun note for English dub watchers: Apparently Mauler is voiced by Kyle Hebert. Did not recognize his voice at all, although you can discern it if you know beforehand and actively try to hear it. But damn.
– I like the variety of Johan’s henchman. He goes from professionals to the douchiest, most wretched people to do his dirty work.