“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a Monster rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his head the name of blasphemy (…) And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the Monster: and they worshipped the Monster saying “Who is like unto the Monster? Who is able to make war with him?”The Black Book of Johan, Revelation 13, #1-4 (originally a passage from the Bible, with the word “beast” replaced with “monster,” and “loanes” with “Johan.”
Monster is one of those shows that rightfully deserves to be a classic, and for a good reason. It’s arguably one of the best long-running mystery stories with a great cast of characters and a villain who can only be described as legendary. I recently had the honor of experiencing this entire show as a whole and finally closing off the long 74 episode journey and character study of Johan Liebert with an ending that I can see why people can be confused by it, however, it couldn’t have had a better conclusion to such a well made horror story.
Monster was originally a manga written by Naoki Urasawa, a genius man who went on to create a light novel going further in depth with the story. Through currently translating this book, and debating translating the show itself, I have become pretty invested in the world Urasawa created. With 74 episodes, there is a lot to take in. Every little detail could undoubtedly be glanced over, and this is one of those shows where every subtlety is a hint to the overall question of this show. Yes, not an answer. This show never set out to choose sides, but only to invoke an emotion that is so interesting and terrifying that, in the words of several friends of mine after seeing the ending will “mess you up for weeks.” It’s no secret I am in love with that ending, an ending twist that will make you lose your mind. However, I do not call this a twist, only a final realization. So what exactly is Monster’s story or mystery?
Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a Japanese neurosurgeon working in a hospital in Germany during the late 20th century. He decides to go against the hospital’s political wishes, due to his firm belief that all lives are equal, and saves a newly orphaned boy before a mayor since he arrived first. The boy was shot in the head and would die unless Tenma did this. However, the mayor died, and Tenma risked losing everything. After a drunken spill, all of the higher-ups threatening Tenma die. Tenma only gains from this. Nine years later, the boy reappears, revealing himself to be Johan Liebert, a serial killer behind these deaths and an even further reign of terror. The story is on the surface Tenma hunting down Johan to kill him and make things right, but ultimately, it is a character study on a man who although charming and charismatic, can only be described as none other than the devil himself. A true monster.
Johan is the key to understanding this anime, and the final twist at the end, if all the hints fit together, is the ultimate key to the puzzle of a mystery, what was Johan’s motive? Through unexpected events, childhood flashbacks, his own words, the words of other characters, and even picture books written in Czech, we can slowly piece together throughout the whole series why Johan is a monster. There are 3 points of interest. Also from here on out we will be covering massive spoilers for the entire series.
Johan was brought up in an orphanage known for abusing children. 511 Kinderhaim is said to be a place of cruelty where children are nothing but test subjects to an experiment, but it is then revealed Johan was the cause of a revolt leaving 50 people dead and the institution had nothing to do with it.
Kenzo Tenma: It is your experiment! It is your experiment that turned him into that kind of person!
Mr. Hartmann: Our experiment…? Oh, no… You have it all wrong. There is no way we could have created a masterpiece like him! He was more than human, a monster, from the beginning!
Then in the middle, it is hinted that a massacre happened at the Red Rose Mansion (which fun fact, it’s a real place apparently. So is the Three Frogs Inn, just with different names. How terrifying is that?.) Johan was there as a child to see it all.
Lunge: The many people who died in that room… and… a terrifying monster was born!
But then it was revealed that it was Nina who saw the horrifying scene, not Johan. Johan was only told what had happened.
Nina: Johan only listened to my story. The one who was taken to the Rose Mansion was… me!
All of this leading to the shocking twist ending, where Johan reveals his mother had to make a terrible decision, was the only reason for his actions. However, that not only doesn’t explain why Johan became a murderer, and since this is Naoki Urasawa we’re talking about here… that isn’t even scratching the surface of the reality of this show. You see, Johan is not a simple one-sided character by any means, nor is he a gray character, as suggested when Tenma finds a note which translated from German means “Help! The Monster in me is about to explode!” However… the psychiatrist later reveals in the show, that this was all a mind game from Johan…
Rudy Gillen: Most people mistakenly believe that serial killers are introverted, but that is completely inaccurate. There are those who are highly intelligent, sociable, and smooth talkers. They are compulsive liars.
Kenzo Tenma: Is he… toying with me?
And once again, this toying with his enemies is something I don’t even think Johan gets pure enjoyment out of only due to a deep nihilistic philosophy within him. Early in the show, Dieter meets a boy in the hospital named Martin. He’s being treated for a broken leg. Dieter decides to take him outside, only for Martin’s and secretly Johan’s character to be revealed.
Martin: It’s just like he said! “Once you come back to life, go outside. The world will have changed…” No… it’s not the world that’s changed, it’s me.
Martin then proceeds to do nihilistic acts, such as crossing a busy street as if none of the cars existed, not even hesitating and they crash around him and beating a homeless man. He explains that life is boring and, therefore, everything is boring. The only time life is fun is when you have nothing holding you back, even the fear of death. The single way life becomes interesting is through a game… The Rooftop Game. A game where two people balance on the edge of a rooftop and fight until one falls. The goal of the game is simple, to survive. However, even if you fall, and you live, then you are still the winner because you are chosen by fate. It’s merely that, a bet with fate… and the winner gets to play the game again. People will dismiss it as just a cruel game that Johan wants his victims to play, however… the only way Johan’s actions and the entirety of the show make sense is when you realize Johan’s game is nothing more than a massive Rooftop Game.
Martin: I can’t be like Johan… Johan’s playing a much better game!
When Johan talks to Karl, the son of a billionaire, you see him walking on the edge of a rooftop. Even though this rooftop edge is barely wide enough to hold one of his feet, unlike the kids, Johan calmly walks on. Each step has a purpose. This is how Johan plays his game with Tenma. For example, he knows Tenma is coming to kill him. Why not take a stroll in the woods where there is a war veteran walking around guilty for committing murder. Well what if Tenma decides to shoot him outside the forest? Simple, surround yourself with children, knowing full well that Tenma would never scar children like that. That means the only chance Tenma has to shoot Johan is in the library during the ceremony. Johan plans things down to the very last detail, which means the only appropriate place for his final confrontation with the detective who almost found him out takes place on a rooftop. Johan is built 100% on nihilism and the feeling you have no place in the world.
In one point of the story, Johan (dressed as Nina) asks a boy why he’s still alive and what his purpose is for living. He is actually talking to himself in that scene.
Johan: Being born really isn’t that uncommon… almost everything in this world is meant to die. In this world, a life born is nothing more than an insignificant speck… and shouldn’t even be counted as an existence. Death is natural. Then why are you alive? Who wanted you? What is your reason for living? (…) But if no one calls out to you… that means nobody wanted you. What will you do then?
Some say the only question left in philosophy is why we don’t just commit suicide. To be or not to be. The answer is surprisingly comfortable. Because life is enjoyable, as long as you find something to enjoy. A cup of coffee, love, forming, and creating social bonds, but the opposite poses an even darker question. What if you can’t feel love or empathy, no memories, no name, no recognition, no intimate connection with your own gender, no passion from your parents, no joy in anything or anyone, just nothing. All of these things are the entirety of what Johan is. Johan has no name, all his memories have been taken from him and have been 100% fabricated, he has no identity to himself, he continually switches from being a boy and a girl, his mom, actually made the decision between him and his sister, and Johan feels no joy in even the simplest of life pleasures.
Grimmer: At the funeral, my wife broke down… “How can you remain so calm?” “Why can’t you cry?” “You’re unable to love another person.” “There’s nothing in your heart.” (…) Do you understand what kind of sin you’ve committed? Do you understand what it means to destroy the boundary between good and evil? Do you understand what happens to people if you awaken the Monster inside them? People… People have to think of food as delicious… They have to enjoy a picnic on a holiday… They have to think a beer after work tastes great… People… People feel sad from the bottoms of their hearts when their children pass away…
And just like Grimmer, Johan had no reason to exist. When Johan has killed their foster parents and is caught by Nina, he points to his forehead asking her to shoot him. It was certain death, a bullet to the head, however, he was saved by Tenma. He wakes up crying in the hospital, but he’s not crying because Tenma saved him, he’s crying because up until that point he didn’t see the world as beautiful. Like Martin, Johan survived the fall and has been chosen by fate. This is why in many scenes throughout the show, Johan is seen pointing to his forehead. This is when he feels the closest to death. He’s telling the people walking on the rooftop with him where to shoot to stop him. It’s the ultimate dare. He only does this when he has no way of escaping, and Johan is 100% certain he is going to die. When the library is burning around Johan, he slowly and calmly walks forward to an armed Tenma and points at his forehead. Tenma has his weapon drawn and is ready to shoot him, and they are in an enclosed burning building. However, the second Nina runs in and yells at Tenma not to shoot, he puts his hand down. He already knows Tenma isn’t going to kill him.
The two main players in Johan’s game are Tenma and Nina. Tenma’s starts when Johan shoots Adolf in front of him, sparking the premise of the entire show. Nina’s begins the moment Johan murdered their foster parents. Because Johan survived, he could play the game again and have a rematch with his sister, Nina. Johan had insane plans for the rest of humanity. The Neo-Nazi group wanted Johan to become the next Hitler so that he might establish a new world order. However, Johan had zero interest in turning into their puppet, so they had to replace him with Kristoff. He is the perfect devil’s apprentice and like Johan was in 511 Kinderheim, and they like to expose people secret’s to manipulate them. When Eva shoots Kristoff, Kristoff shouts that the face is the most crucial part of a politician. It was likely that he would become the next chancellor of Germany with how much the Neo-Nazi group was interested in him. With the billionaire’s fortune and Johan’s political power before his change in plans, his true master plan could become a reality. At the end of the show, he shows Tenma what he wanted to create. “The End”… A world without names.
Johan’s challenge to himself was to either be consumed by Nihilism or to stand proudly on his own two feet. This plan would be the end of his Nihilism. The death of everything, him standing on top of the world with everyone seeing and feeling as he does. But then something happened that changed everything…
When he read Franz Bonaparta’s book, Johan began screaming and fainting. This was because he “awoke from his dream.” His newfound life and philosophy were to kill and erase anything he ever worked for and any memory of his existence. One of my favorite scenes in the show is after his confrontation with Nina, and the reveal that Johan never went to the Red Rose Mansion… he visits Horst Grossman, the son of Franz Bonaparta … and the following happens.
That end is so good. The buildup to that real end is insane. A dead body is found outside the village, the phone lines are cut, the local police are murdered, guns are distributed, everyone is paranoid, tensions keep building, and a flame is ignited with is impossible to stop. Johan essentially replicated 511 Kinderhaim. The entire thing is set up that everyone will be dead once Bonaparta is killed, and then Johan will be killed by Tenma. It is the reverse rooftop game. Will fate prevent him from walking off the roof to his own death? Johan’s seemingly impossible plan is, of course, executed perfectly, and everything is going his way. Grimmer, one of my favorite characters is dead. Lugen and Roberto are currently fighting to the death, the entire villagers have slaughtered one another and Bonaparta is dead without Johan having to do a single thing. Everything is going to plan. Johan says just the right thing to make Tenma shoot him, the only time humans are equal is in death and points to his forehead. He knows with 100% certainty that Tenma will shoot and kill him right there.
Then Nina shows up and orders Tenma not to shoot because she figured it all out too. His window of opportunity just closed. For the first time, Johan gets desperate. His eyes widen as they did in the ending, and he takes a dramatically different appearance. Johan takes a hostage and threatens to shoot a child if he isn’t killed by Tenma right then and there.
Then something completely unexpected happens. Something no one could have possibly predicted. Fate decides to intervene. The father of the boy Johan is holding at gunpoint is walking down the street only to see his son and Johan. His father was a drunk and going mad with the sight of all the bodies, and in this madness, he saw Johan as the Monster he indeed was. He hallucinated Johan as a monster with seven heads and ten horns… and out of love for his son, the desire to protect him, and pure horror and despair at the sight of Johan, he shoots Johan in the head. The show ends with everything becoming a full circle, Johan being shot in the head, and Tenma saving his life and sticking to his morals that all beings are equal.
Now for the final chapter of this crazy series, episode 74.
Tenma visits Johan’s mother, and upon it learns almost everything. He goes to visit the comatose Johan in the hospital to tell him his mother loves him and he actually does, in fact, have a name and an identity. This is never shared with us, however, because suddenly, Johan is awake impossibly. Johan gives Tenma, and the audience, his ultimate secret. Bonaparta demanded that his mother had to choose which one of his children to give away. The mother at first began to throw Johan, but then changed her mind and threw Nina. Did his mother mistakingly pick the wrong person? Was his love betrayed by his mother? The critical point Johan is making is that it wasn’t who she chose… it was the fact she decided. That experiment was done to destroy Johan’s sense of love. Had the mother loved her children, she would have refused. That’s why this episode is called “The Real Monster.” This moment, along with the Red Rose Mansion, 511 Kinderheim, and the revival done by Tenma is what made Johan who he is today. Without all of that, Johan would have never become a monster.
People think of Nihilism as not caring for yourself, for others, but it’s much more profound. Pure nihilism is what Kristoff, Johan, Grimmer, and Roberto represent. The inability to connect with anything, anyone, to have any memories or form any connections with others. This was the fate the admittedly good Grimmer fought with until his death. Johan’s brainwashing caused him only to remember the Red Rose Mansion, and fulfill his biggest fear, losing his memories of Nina. Johan fears to become the Monster… and that Monster is Nihilism. Just like in the picture book Bonaparta wrote, Johan would end up even eating the Monster and becoming the only thing left in the entire world.
This was the ultimate difference between Johan and the rest. Grimmer remembered the Ultimate Steiner TV Show, Roberto remembered his love for hot chocolate by Johan. This is why Roberto could never see the scenery for The End because Johan has no pleasure in life, like when he drank the son of Bonaparta’s famous herbal tea with zero reaction. What’s fascinating is although it seems everyone outside of 511 Kinderheim was meant to become a monster, the goal of the experiment was to combat nihilism.
Mikhail Petrov: Hatred… Nihilism… Destructive impulses… I wanted to create a person who wouldn’t be engulfed by darkness… How does one do that?
Grimmer: Love… it’s just a perfectly normal, natural thing that a parent gives to his children…
The shows entire theme and dichotomy is the conflict between love and nihilism, with Tenma and Johan representing opposite sides of the spectrum. Tenma believes all lives are equal, while at the end, Johan says all beings are similar only in death. He’s saying that no matter what, politics and hierarchy will exist, but this in a way proves Tenma right. Everyone fears death because the brain cannot conceptualize in-existence, and nothing comes after death. You simply don’t exist. Evil is only permitted when other’s ignore that we all feel the dread for death.
The final scene in the show after Johan reveals this to us is Tenma snapping out of it, and discovering Johan is asleep before he leaves the room. The next shot is an empty bed next to an open window… Johan’s bed. Was he ever there in the first place? Did he get away? Did he jump out the window and commit suicide? Did he kill more? The book I’m currently translating reveals this, hence why I want to translate it. Johan actually goes on from here to live a healthy, happy, fulfilling life without killing. Why? Because his reverse rooftop game gave him the answer, he was chosen by fate. The only reason he wanted to die was to find a reason to live, and by surviving this perfect suicide, he knows there’s a reason out there. All of this… was realized in a single masterful ending that took up around 4 minutes, and it was the perfect ending to an excellent story.