Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
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.
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.
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