Based on the manga series by Naoki Urasawa, Monster has been running on SyFy for a little while now, which is probably where most American viewers would have gotten their first taste of this grim, if highly addictive, series of psychological suspense. Viz Communications has wisely decided to release the first volume of episodes onto DVD for U.S. and Canadian audiences to enjoy, compiling the first fifteen episodes in this three disc set.
So what's it all about?
The series is set in Germany in 1986 where a young Dr. Kenzo Tenma is climbing the ranks in the hospital where he works as a surgeon. He's engaged to the foxy daughter of the man in charge and all signs point to a very successful career. All of that changes, however, when he's asked to disregard the hospital's 'first come, first served' standard and operate on a wealthy patron instead of an average citizen. He obliges, but when he's asked to do it a second time, he doesn't listen and as such, the mayor dies. The powers that be at the hospital make it pretty clear that he's not going to go much further, and his fiancé leaves him. Tenma believes he did the right thing, however, as he did save the life of the young boy that he operated on instead of the mayor.
As time goes on, however, Tenma learns that his actions may have had even farther reaching consequences. The boy he saved, named Johan, may have grown into a serial killer and made his former boss and ex-fiance's father one of his first victims. His world slightly rocked, Tenma wrestles with the morality of his decisions past, present and future, he has to battle it out with his conscience, a large portion of which is telling him to get rid of Johan once and for all, in the name of the greater good.
This first batch of episodes doesn't always move at a rocket's pace but instead the show takes its time introducing us to the characters that pepper its world and who the central plot revolves around. As we get to know Tenma and understand his character, sympathizing with his plight and admiring his attempts to do what he truly feels is the right and honorable thing, so too do we get to know Johan. Interesting enough, Johan, who is essentially the core antagonist of the series, isn't a raving, frothing at the mouth lunatic nor is he a witty, catchphrase spouting Hannibal Lector, type, but rather, he's quite. Introspective, even. He's fleshed out with as much attention to detail as Tenma is, and the series is all the better and all the more interesting for it.
In addition to the rich character development and twisting, turning central plot, the story also throws in some interesting political twists. By setting the story in the Germany that was in 1986, the location is one that's full of possibilities for intrigue, subterfuge and backstabbing and Urasawa's story takes full advantage of this. The reasoning behind Johan's penchant for killing turns out to be entirely politically motivated, as we learn about his origins and why he kills the way he does and why he kills who he kills. So much of it all ties back to politics, just as it does in the real world.
As Tenma realizes what he's set free in the world and leaves the safe, if socially uncomfortable, confines of the hospital he's worked at for a few years to set out into the streets, he meets all manner of people. Some help him on his way and in his quest, others obviously prove a hindrance but they're all interesting and you definitely get the sense that the story is building and that things are happening for a reason. Tenma's fiancé, on the surface a self serving bitch and nothing but, pops in and out of his life as does a troublesome police inspector bent on bringing Tenma in. As the story progresses, the supporting cast becomes more important and in turn more interesting.
The fact that this is an anime series might put those unaccustomed with the style off of this release, but really, that'd be a shame. Anyone who can appreciate a good crime story or a good thriller, or anyone who enjoys a good story period ought to give this is a shot. The style is grounded in reality, the animation is smooth and leans more toward realism than the big eyed big breasted clichés that are often associated with the format. Anyone unwilling to give this series a shot based on the fact that it's a cartoon or, worse, a cartoon from another country, would truly be missing out indeed and here's hoping that Viz manages to get the remaining episodes out on DVD sooner rather than later.
The 1.33.1 fullframe picture on this DVD looks decent enough, aside from the fact that ti's interlaced. Colors are as natural as you'd want them to be and the image is clean and clear of any dirt or debris. There are some minor compression artifacts that you'll spot in the darker scenes but no noticeable edge enhancement. Some shimmering can be spotted here and there as well as some aliasing but again, it's minor, nothing to really take away from the experience at all. There are certainly better looking anime releases out there, but Viz's release of Monster offers up the first fifteen episodes in a nice looking presentation.
Viz offers up Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks in the series' original Japanese language or in a dubbed English track, with optional English subtitles. The English dubbed track is better than you'd probably expect it to be even if the Japanese track seems to suit the series better. All in all, things sound quite good here. It'd have been nice to hear a 5.1 mix spread things out a bit more but there's some decent channel separation noticeable where it needs to be and the levels are always properly balanced. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to complain about and the subtitles are clear and easy enough to read.
Sadly, here's where this release disappoints, as aside from some static menus and episode selection sub-menus, the first two discs are completely barebones. The third disc in the set contains Monster: The Official File, which is a section of text pieces made up of an interview with director Masayuki Kojima, a World Report section that contains some political insight, character profiles for those who appear in the first fifteen episodes of the series, and some episode synopsis. An advertisement for the manga version of the story is also found here, as are trailers for a few other Viz properties. Sadly, none of these are very substantial.
The cover art is nice, but that doesn't really count, does it? Considering the weight of this series and the fan base that seems to be developing around it since it started airing on SyFy, it's both surprising and disappointing that there aren't any interviews, featurettes or commentaries provided here, particularly when you consider the hefty MSRP.
A very dark, heavy and brooding series, Monster turns out to be a pretty gripping viewing experience. It's really well written and at times quite intense, making full use of its bizarre cast of characters and pulling viewers in with some unexpected but clever plot twists. Fans of dark psychological thrillers really ought to give this series a shot, and despite the fact that the extras are weak, this set comes highly recommended based on the strength of the series itself.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.