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Tenma the Saint: Thoughts on Monster vol 1-7 PART 1

In Monster, Naoki Urasawa asks “is killing someone ever justified?”  I don’t mind the asking of the question, but the qualified answer that is given kind of bothers me.  The reason the answer is “qualified” is because the test-case appears to be the saintly Dr. Tenma’s quest to end the life of the titular monster.  Today I discuss the manga’s attempts to humanize Tenma and why that attempt only undermines the creator’s ability to do justice to his own answer to the question.

Please note that this isn’t a review of Monster but a spoiler-filled discussion of the first seven volumes.  You probably shouldn’t read this unless you’ve read these volumes or seen the first 30 or so episodes of the anime.  (Also, I haven’t yet read beyond vol 7 so I would appreciate if posters also refrain from spoiling me for further developments).

So.  Spoilers.  You’ve been warned.

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It is hard not to love the character of Tenma.  No matter what happens to him he always appears to be on a mission to save lives — not just with his hands in his capacity as a surgeon, but also by inspiring others through his dedication to life and belief in the inherent goodness of human beings.  Very rarely are characters who are so good also remain so likable.   However, I think Urasawa could have toned down Tenma’s saintliness quite a bit.   By volume 7, there are only a few pieces of evidence that Tenma is flawed and, therefore, human.  The following are the examples that struck me as most significant.

1) His raw, unattractive rage after his first fall from grace.  He ends up spewing a bunch of self-righteous vitriol over the fact his ability to save lives using his surgical skills (i.e. which is evidence of his genius) isn’t being appreciated by the people who have power over him.  He does this in his young, supposedly unconscious, patient’s room whom he’s just operated on.

This is a very young man’s response to injustice — he’s not just angry, he’s boiling over and in that moment he’s only concerned with himself.  (He goes to Johan’s room then because Johan’s life is his proof that he did the right thing).  His anger, while justified, is completely over the top.  This obvious moment of weakness — where he wishes all the people who screwed him over would die — comes back to haunt him.  It becomes Johan’s way of worming his way into Tenma’s psyche.  Yet Tenma remains human because he only wishes this violence for a moment — he’s not a monster because he would never ever really want those men to die.

However, Tenma suffers inordinately for this one little mistake — he suffers beyond what he should.  Now a lot of people suffer and die in this manga but there often isn’t special meaning in their suffering.  They suffer because the world has some bad people in it, or they’ve done bad things and now are getting their comeuppance.  But they suffer because that is part of the human condition.  Tenma suffers because he’s good and allowed some nasty, nasty thoughts to percolate in his head in a moment of weakness.  In other words, he’s punished because he is revealed to be someone that he shouldn’t be — he’s revealed that he is, in fact, human.

I’m sorry, but that is so fucked up I don’t even know where to begin.  Tenma’s suffering is given special status because he is special.  He’s held to a higher standard and, therefore, his punishment is greater when he fails to maintain that standard.

2) His ego as a surgeon.   The moment Tenma decides to operate on Johan rather than an important elected official is not just about his sense of right as a doctor but about him.   Since the boy arrived at the hospital first and his injury was deemed more serious, Tenma tells himself he did the right thing by operating on him, rather than caving to political pressure by working on the mayor.  Tenma’s also reacting to the fact that just before this occurred a working-class patient died while he was operating on someone considered “important” to the hospital.  In that instant he wasn’t given a choice, i.e. he didn’t know that there was another patient who might have needed him.   The wife of the dead patient ends up blaming Tenma for not being there which troubles his conscience.

Now, I’m not saying Tenma did anything wrong but he made a choice the night Johan and the mayor came into the hospital at roughly the same time.  The person he operated on lived and the person he didn’t died.  While it isn’t Tenma’s fault that no other surgeon around was talented enough to save the other patient, he also never acknowledges that by choosing one patient over the other, he sometimes decides who lives and who dies.

This is simply a fact of being a surgeon.  This doesn’t make Tenma a bad person, but his notion that by making a decision to operate on one patient rather than another he’s furthering “right”…I don’t buy it.  Yes, obviously doctors should triage patients according to the severity of their injury and not their class status and Tenma was right to reject pressure from his superiors to do otherwise.   Tenma, I think takes it further, so that his very identity is based on the fact he chose to treat one patient rather than another.  That seems problematic to me because either way, one patient would have died.  By hanging his sense of self on that decision being “right” he neatly side-steps the fact that sometimes the universe is cruel and you just can’t save everyone.  No matter how good a surgeon you are.  In other words, a doctor is not god.

Tenma is more than just a decision to triage according to certain values of justice and right.  He is more than his set of skills.  But so long as he continues to think of himself in only these terms, he refuses to see his own fallibility.

3) The fact he cheated on a med school exam.  I mean, he’s very matter-of-fact about it and it is supposed to make him endearing rather than sleazy (and it actually does).  Because Tenma is so good we’re meant to see his fact of cheating not as an attempt to escape hard work, but as a sane response to life circumstances (i.e. if the game is rigged you’d be incredibly stupid NOT to cheat, a la Kirk in the recent Star Trek movie).

This is a very small, but important moment.  Tenma’s former med school peer has resented Tenma for decades because he thought Tenma looked down on him.  When Gillen discovers the truth — Tenma was cheating on the same test as he was — all the resentment disappears.  Suddenly Tenma is just like “everyone else.”  Except he never really is.  Tenma was not as obsessed with school ranking — with being the “golden boy” — as Gillen so it is hard to make this bit of characterization fit in with the rest of what we know about him.  Yes, it is an amusing confession and it makes us look at Tenma slightly differently (it makes him seem more flexible, less rigidly “perfect”) but in the end this moment only works because we don’t really believe it.  In other words, we already believe in Tenma’s perfection.  One little cheating incident isn’t going to change that.

4) His relationship with Eva was probably based on sex and status.  This is a may be a minor thing, but Tenma ends up so asexual when he’s on the run that you can forget he used to have a sex drive and that part of Eva’s appeal was the fact she was the daughter of the director of the hospital.  I’m not saying he was opportunistic, only that he was a foreigner who had been accepted into the fold which he planned to prove by  marrying into a successful hospital administrator’s family.  Actually, more than being accepted, by dating Eva Tenma partly proved he could be the director’s successor.  In other words, dating Eva used to be part of his idea of what made him the complete package as a doctor.

When Eva dumps him, thereby revealing she cares more for her special place in society as a hospital director’s daughter than for Tenma, he pretty much gives up women altogether.  To me that indicates he might recognize his own culpability in dating Eva with the expectation of a certain amount of social and economic gain.  Once again, I want to stress that I honestly don’t think this makes Tenma an opportunist.   I think it simply means he hadn’t questioned why he was with Eva until she threw him away as damaged goods.

The end result of not only her leaving him, but also him realizing how easily status can be “taken” from you, seems to drive him to work and work alone.  Before he goes on the run it is revealed that his entire life has become the hospital and his work as a doctor there (not just a “surgeon,” Tenma is always very much a doctor).   He no longer bothers to try to integrate his social life and his work life and not simply because Eva hurt him through her rejection.

Concluding thoughts for today:  While numbers 1 and 3 on this list are intended to make Tenma more human, I actually think it is numbers 2 and 4 that unintentionally end up doing that.  Yet each point I’ve made only ends up reasserting the fact that Tenma is a “special” case.   This means when Urasawa asks if it is ever justified for someone like Tenma to kill, he isn’t really asking the question because the answer is too obvious.  Tenma’s too good to kill.  And that becomes a big problem by volume 7.

Next up: Discussion of Tenma’s doppelganger, Richard Braun, and how he is offered as an example of what could happen to Tenma if he does end up killing Johan.

24 Comments

You know, I keep meaning to review every manga series I read (of which Monster is one) and then you come along and write something that would make anything I’d write sound silly. I’ll still probably get around to reviewing the ones I do read, but you keep raising the bar and making it harder. Damn it!

I too thought Tenma’s admission about med school odd. It’s simply glossed over, and it seems like we’re supposed to believe that cheating is okay because someone as wonderful as Tenma did it. When Gillen does it, we feel scorn. Then Tenma does it, and we’re supposed to say, “Oh, well, then, it’s all right.” It’s very weird.

Excellent analysis. I look forward to more!

Thanks, Greg, that really means a lot coming from you! (To be honest, Urasawa inspires the think-y thoughts kind of posts. Many manga I read wouldn’t inspire me to engage in this kind of analysis. Right now Monster and NANA are two series that I could just go on and on about so I figure I might as well use those impulses for “good”).

Of course, I’d love to see your thoughts on these series! (Pluto, Monster, 20th Century Boys, Ooku….it’d be fun to see someone else tackle manga here).

I really am afraid I don’t see that at all. I’m not even sure what it would mean to say that someone is “too good to kill.” Maybe you could help explain.

I mean don’t get me wrong, Tenma’s Saintly status is definitely there. There’s a scene in Volume 8 that’s a part of one of Urasawa’s side stories involving Tenma that just pushes it over the edge into cheesy. But while Tenma certainly has a reputation in the manga (in both senses) as being a paradigm of human goodness I never got the sense that how good he was had any relationship to his justification for killing.

I also think in 1) you’re misreading Tenma’s suffering as ‘punishment’. I don’t think Urasawa is punishing him. The fact that his failing comes back to haunt him is an ironic twist of fate, not karma. I also certainly wouldn’t say his suffering is worse by a long-shot than that of many other characters in the series.

In any case, I think a lot of what you’re seeing is the result of a tension between Tenma’s status as the paradigmatic counter to Johan (an Eros against Johan’s Thanatos) and Urasawa’s tendency to try and flesh out characters.

Krill — This is just the first part of this little argument of mine, so I kind of leave it open-ended on purpose. I’m going to further develop the notion that Tenma is “too good to kill.”

But quickly, I noticed that a NUMBER of characters keep saying that *Tenma* can’t kill Johan, NOT that Johan shouldn’t die (Dieter, Nina/Anna being the two most significant ones). Tenma shouldn’t dirty his hands because he is a good person and if he kills Johan, even if Johan is “ultimate evil” or whatever, he’ll destroy himself. (Nina, for example, tells herself since she’s already shot Johan once, she should be the one to kill him, since that would allow Tenma to go unscathed). That argument is made even stronger with the comparison to Richard Braun in vol 7, who is eventually destroyed by his similar actions (which I hope to discuss in greater depth in the next post).

Now, things happen at the end of volume 7 that show that Tenma is no longer alone in his quest to take down Johan and so that kind of takes the burden off him suffering ALL ALONE as the only person who could stop Johan (this could change in volume 8, right now I’m just going on the first 7 volumes). This is an important development because if Tenma has other people to rely upon, Urasawa seems to say he has no business trying to kill Johan if he can fall back on the rule of law. Without the rule of law to protect him, though, Tenma believes he’s the *only one* to stop him (even though Johan’s ruined many, many people’s lives).

Still developing these ideas so thanks for stopping by to share your perspective….

I think I understand where you’re coming from better now. I always took Dieter/Anna pleading Tenma not to kill simply as a somewhat realistic depiction of how we often try to protect the ‘innocence’ of those we care about rather than as a direct statement of Urasawa’s own perspective on the matter. I wish I could go into more detail about my justification but that would involve reference to Urasawa’s other works, interviews and the parts of Monster you haven’t got to yet.

In any case, keep up the interesting analysis. Goodness knows Urasawa is worth it.

I’d just like to qualify my above post by saying that the parts of Monster involved in my taking the opinion I have that you haven’t read yet are not such that they couldn’t be taken otherwise. Since I seem to be taking Monster less at face value thus far (or in a different way at least) I just want to point out that my comment doesn’t actually indicate anything concrete about actual events in later Monster.

In any case, keep up the interesting analysis. Goodness knows Urasawa is worth it.

Thanks! You hit the nail on the head — I wouldn’t bother with all this analysis if Urasawa hadn’t created such an amazing comic.

And no worries, I’m not actually that uptight about spoilers (usually only something very specific, i.e. “blank does blank during blank while blank is going on,” would actually “spoil” me. I just thought I’d mention I’d only read the first seven volumes so people wouldn’t bring in evidence I couldn’t really respond to. (Also, I actually do want to try to read the rest of Monster without knowing *too* much about what happens).

Danielle, your 1) sort of puzzled me. I guess this is some sort of cultural shock at work.

Probably because it is my understanding that Tenma is in fact quite unremarkable in that respect. He is not “too good to be human”, not in my reading of things at least; on the contrary, the circunstances he finds himself immersed into are inhuman and unbearable, yet he attempts to resist them anyway.

He is not a saint at all, but he _is_ definitely doing his best to try and stop the spread of corruption around him.

That Dieter, Anna and others try to protect him from his harder choices does not at all imply to me that he is somehow better than anyone else, either. In fact, I don’t even think he is particularly pure at all. Not noticeably better than Dieter and Anna themselves, for instance. He just feels responsible for Johan’s bad choices and hesitates to involve anyone else in the effort to stop them.

Luis…hmmm. I think everything about Tenma is remarkable. In fact, nothing about him could be deemed “unremarkable.” Everything he does seems to single him out from the people around him. He’s a brilliant surgeon, he constantly fights so he can stop Johan in spite of all the obstacles and he never takes short-cuts to get to that goal (i.e. he still tries to save lives even when that distracts him from closing in on Johan). When you say he finds himself in “inhuman circumstances” that are “unbearable,” I think it is worth noting that he *does* bear them. That strength sets him apart (and why I think Johan might be so interested in him. Tenma might be the one person who is talented/brave/principled enough to end him and a part of him obviously wants that).

Can you explain why number 1 puzzled you? I think I sort of get it but I want to be sure I understand. Tenma so rarely allows emotion to overcome him to that degree so it is a key moment for me (and I’m arguing a key moment in the series).

IMO, it is _because_ he is quite emotional that Tenma is so driven to stop Johan despite all the hardships. Tenma is, in fact, consistently quite passional. He is idealized, sure, but just barely so, just enough to make him the protagonist, and arguably less so than Anna.

I guess I have come to _expect_ Japanese protagonists to be hard-working and uncompromising in their principles. Light’s father in Death Note comes to mind, but there in fact many examples. I can hardly picture Tenma being significantly less virtuous than he is, in fact.

When you say he finds himself in “inhuman circumstances” that are “unbearable,” I think it is worth noting that he *does* bear them.

Uh? Of course he doesn’t. “Monster” is very much the story of how he _fails_ to cope with the circunstances, and is therefore left with no choice but to, so to speak, “convulse” his way through the trail of Johan’s whereabouts and seek some relief. He is not strong enough to let Johan go.

Of course, he sees no point in attempting to, either. Because there isn’t.

That strength sets him apart (and why I think Johan might be so interested in him. Tenma might be the one person who is talented/brave/principled enough to end him and a part of him obviously wants that).

Really? I see Anna and quite a few of Tenma’s allies as at least close matches, if not more capable than Tenma himself.

Tenma is a bit more lucky than most of Johan’s enemies, and obviously enjoys a degree of protection due to Johan’s gratitude and admiration. But at the end of the day, he is still only a man trying (and nearly failing) to keep still while being subjected to unbearable pressure.

I’m going to be super brief because when discussing a series it’s hard for me not to talk about the whole of it, but when it comes to characters not wanting Tenma to kill, I think a large part of that isn’t just because of how they see him, but rather what he offers them instead. Tenma is often a figure that brings hope into people’s lives, in the case of someone l like Dieter it shows him a man totally unlike the cruel foster father he had before. If Tenma kills someone, and becomes just as grey as all those around him, someone like Dieter would have lost an almost unreal hope that it’s possible to live a happy life that doesn’t involve inflicting pain on others.

Essentially, when looking at why Johan is trying to corrupt Tenma, it becomes more interesting specifically because of how good he is. Because if Tenma is corruptible, it shows how even a saint can become a monster.

Now, there are some serious problems with that analysis, but I don’t want to mention them until you finish the rest of the series. I’m looking forward to reading more of it!

I’ll just weigh in here and say that all the ways in which Tenma is exceptional are completely conventional for Urasawa protagonists, even going back to his earlier period when he was doing mostly comedies and sports stories instead of thrillers. In particular, most Urasawa protagonists are exceptionally good at some skill that comes to define their personality, a lot are half-Japanese, and they’re frequently coddled or protected by more eclectic side-characters.

(This is especially prominent in Happy!, which is in fact one of the most depressing things I’ve ever read.)

[...] Danielle Leigh embarks upon what she warns is a “spoiler-filled” discussion of vols. 1-7 of Monster at Comics Should Be Good with a discussion of the flaws of the saintly Dr. [...]

Jose — some very interesting points. I particularly like “Because if Tenma is corruptible, it shows how even a saint can become a monster.” I know that the second I read more volumes I might have a completely different reaction but I want to get some of this out before I move onto volume 8 in the series.

Lynxara — I get what your saying. If I find Tenma saint-like, I actually find Kenji from 20th Century Boys to be Jesus (although I’ve only read up to volume 7 of that series). I wish Happy! was entirely available in English because I’m very curious about that series…

Glad to see Tenma’s saintliness go under the microscope, as I’ve always found Urasawa’s attempts to make Tenma “human” unpersuasive. (Kenji, though definitely exhibiting Christ-like tendencies, at least has a little more street cred in the regular-guy department.) That’s not to say Tenma is a bad character, just more of a conceit than a person. I found the supporting cast of Monster more interesting and well-rounded.

Looking forward to reading the next installment of the series!

Thanks, Kate! The reactions here have been interesting because there’s a wide variety of readings on Tenma (even if Kenji is “Jesus-y” as I like to say, or even if all of Urasawa’s protagonists are elevated above “human,” I still feel Tenma is a special case that shouldn’t be overlooked).

Good point about the supporting cast. Every time someone new shows up I think, “really, Urasawa?” but then they end up being interesting and flawed and I’m not bothered at all.

Weird. I always thought of Tenma as being a fairly typical character, myself. Slightly larger-than-life, because he is meant to be inspiring.

Whether he is “human” enough or not is a question that doesn’t even present itself, really. He is an inspirational figure and he does not need to be anything else.

[...] Leigh reads volumes 1-7 of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, then deconstructs Dr. Tenma’s saintliness… David Welsh interviews Sexy Voice and Robo editor Eric Searleman and shines the spotlight on [...]

Hmm…Great article, but I have to disagree with the general lean of the investigation. As much as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ get tossed around throughout the series, it’s so much more about perspective than any universal right or wrong. In that way, I think each of your points did very well to illustrate that Tenma considers himself a saint and holds himself to a very special standard. Conversely, Johan considers himself a sort of saint of pure objectivity, he is completely free of any bindings of social station or ego. Through the series, you see Johan stripping his nemesis, Tenma, of these same bindings, the ultimate prize being Tenma’s consideration that he, himself, is above killing. I’d think that Johan’s opinion of Tenma is actually exactly as you explain here and that is a perspective given equal weight within the context of the series. So, rather than presenting a Tenma that conflicts with the narrative, Tenma is the sum of parts which are consistent with the ultimate concept of objectivity vs. subjectivity.

Jade — great points! I’ll be sure to think about this perspective more as I delve into later volumes…I do think Urasawa builds Tenma up, though, not just through his own subjectivity but through other people’s reactions to Tenma. In other words, a part of the higher standard that I discuss isn’t just Tenma holding himself up to certain “saint”-like standard but other characters doing so as well. (Also as of volume 7 I’ve just seen hints of Johan’s pov so I think once I see more I’ll have a better idea of how he thinks of himself / Tenma. As of volume 7 the “ultimate prize” you speak of seems to have already been won…Tenma thinks he’s ready to kill Johan but the narrative / other characters keep on saying, “NO! you can’t do that!”)

Danielle – Yes, sorry, I’ve read the whole series, so I’ve had more details to pick up on, but I really only have rocks and applesauce in my head and sometimes they clack together to make a spark. Don’t let me skew your perspective at all while reading, I just thought you’d read through it before.

Interesting read.

Heaving seen and read Monster multiple times, my feeling is that Tenma was meant to be represented as saintly rather than markedly flawed to simultaneously show the instability of even the purest good and question the degree to which this good is pragmatic and serviceable; in other words, because it is Tenma’s idealism that keeps him from killing Johann and thus allows the latter to keep on murdering, his goodness must be scrutinized as an impetus (or at least a perpetuating agent) for evil. To get to such a bare-bones, dualistic level of thinking, Tenma’s character must be flattened into as pure a figure as realistic portrayal will allow – hence the small vices that cast no real shade on his probity where it really matters. He’s human enough to cheat and get piss drunk and allow himself to be whipped by a bitch of a woman, but none of that has any effect on how he deals with issues of life and death and the worth of the former. His flaws, basically, come rather from a need to have a rounded, believable character than to show Tenma as compromised or karmically deserving of his fall; and, honestly, I never saw Tenma’s suffering to be a major point of focus, nor his situation a punishment (especially since it is exactly Johann’s “evil” which propels Tenma into becoming the almost impossible paragon of good). Never forget that Tenma dove into the chase for Johann head first – the first time around, he returned only at Nina’s behest. The second time around, when Runge’s warrant made fleeing a necessity, he always had the option to secretly leave the country. He chose to immerse himself in the quest; he wasn’t pushed into it as part of a punishment.

My second point would be that you might be misinterpreting his relationship with Eva. In later chapters, and especially in the Another Monster supplement, it becomes evident who initiated the relationship and who stands to gain the most by it. Though it may seem inexplicable because of her attitude and shallowness, Eva truly has commanded his love at one point – and as the series goes on and her depth and resourcefulness are revealed, it becomes easier to see why. Sex drive or no sex drive (and despite the impossibility of that relationship, I definitely see sexual tension between him and Nina), I think Tenma’s reasons for immersing himself in his work stem primarily from his guilt at his previous ivory-tower concentration. Status is a non-issue – if he’s learned how fleeting it is, it would be of no concern at all rather than acting as a driving force.

Anyway, hope you’re enjoying the rest of the series, and hope to hear more of your thoughts.

Sorry to have joined the conversation late. I just consumed the last 10 episodes of NU’s Monster today, and I have to say that after being TOTALLY into the series up until around episode 65, I was very disappointed in the ending. I thought all would be revealed but I still had a LOT of unanswered questions. Perhaps the anime version cuts out some significant facts? If so, could anyone answer these questions:

1) Why was Anna a geneticist? This fact was brought up a few times so it is doubtful it is irrelevant. Was there some sort of genetic experimentation going on in addition to the later psychological experiments (other than just picking “good stock” to mate)?

2) How old were the twins when they went to 3 Frogs? Were their formative years spent with Poppe or with Anna alone?

3) Why did Poppe take only one child from 3 Frogs? Did he also take Anna? If so, what happened to Anna during/after the Red Rose Mansion incident? Why didn’t she rejoin her children? Where was she for the rest of her life? In the nunnery??

4) How did Johan manage to poison the candy in the hospital?

5) What separated Johan and Nina after they left the hospital together? How did Nina lose her memory a second time?

6) Why did Johan say he was going to reunite with Nina when they turned 20? This seemed pretty random.

7) Why did Johan collapse after reading The Nameless Monster? Had he not remembered Poppe prior to this?

Any input would be greatly appreciated!

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