Naoki Urasawa’s MONSTER: Identity crisis engendering an absence of the self
There are few things that can arouse a genuine fear of the psychology of man. There are lengthy discourses and non-fiction books explaining the depths of human psyche. There is a personal experience. But after Crime and Punishment (Doestoevsky’s brilliant account of the descent into madness of his utilitarian hero), Monster is by far the most haunting, poignant, and evocative story about the search for one’s identity: if an individual is divested of the right to ever have one.
We begin with the brilliant neurosurgeon, Kenzo Tenma, whose world comes crashing down when he saves the life of a young gunshot victim, our eponymous Monster, the young and charming Johan Liebert. Johan is contrary to most popular culture churnings of the villain stereotype, a beautiful young man with evil on the fringe of his personality or on his sleeve, Johan’s suavity and charisma are mere tools to disguise what other characters perceive as an utterly evil being.
Lockean philosophy says that man is born a ‘tabula rasa’: a blank slate, and therefore the idea of God from which the concept of virtue arises need to be taught for one does not possess a natural inclination for it. Johan is an instrument used by the author for examining the process of allowing just such a blank slate to acquire whatever he wills and to act upon whatever impulses he has, unchecked, unhindered.
With Johan, Urasawa examines the effects of not just childhood abuse, but the other Christian predestinarian concept of man, antithetical to Locke, one which believes man to have been born in sin, to have been raised in sin, until he finds and accepts Christ to have died for the salvation of all mankind. But given Urasawa has left in the equation a tabula rasa who has never received the guidance of right or wrong, Johan is a wanderer whose primary goal despite the passage of the story remains dubious at best. Johan is a lost soul. Urasawa aligns the lack of identity with an inherent hollowness of the person, and the existential crisis arising therefrom.
A German youth, indoctrinated in the ethos of Germanic pride, lauded as the second coming of Hitler, I couldn't help but think of Wilhelm Reich's book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and how Johan has a tendency for breaking up the authoritarian family unit as a rebellion against what he's meant to impose; reproducing the state authority within the family system. But he's possibly merely reproducing that which he himself has known; a broken family, an isolated existence. He may have a certain level of castration anxiety but it's possible that he probably does not differentiate between the sexes (cross-dressing is something he's quite accustomed to).
Yet how much of his actions are schematic and how much of those spontaneous and instinctual are kept open. As is the extent to which he's delusional or rational.
He identifies his mother as one holding a patriarchal authority over him, because it was the doubt and anger regarding her decision of giving him away, that contributed much to his distress. While he had assumed the garb of his sister when the eugenics doctor comes for them, their mother is given the option of giving away either one of her two children, she gives away Anna, however his whole life Johan spends believing that his mother had intended to give him away and had confused the two. It is this passionate anger against her decision and his Freudian fear of her that he exploits younger children and brainwashes them.
Deiter could have very well been the literal interpretation of the exploitation of the 'little man'.
Johan's equation with his father is never established, considering he never knew him, but he has an obsession with his mother which goes deeper than the Oedipal Complex. The fact that Johan identifies himself through women (his sister and mother), I was given to see a form of structuralism there in addition to his cross-dressing proclivity combined to give a form of homogeneity to Johan's sexuality; his true self never is there. He's the secondary entity even in his own mind. His placement is in dialogues, in memories, in activities all interpreted through others, in that he himself becomes the 'other'. In a pure Freudian psychoanalytical sense, sexual hermaphrodism is tied to the being. (He sees himself in Anna. She's his mirror image. She's intelligent but impulsive. He's cold and rational).
Johan's appearance throughout the story is limited. We encounter him as a comatose little boy. Then through Nina's testimony we learn of his murderous behavior. As an adult we see him from the perspective of Tenma, then Schuwald, and his mother, then Bonaparta. But who really is Johan? We never really know. Perhaps he's merely a lacuna to be filled in by the monster within every character who gets airtime. Or perhaps he's more than that.
Regardless, despite the audience being given the frequent impression of his singular brutal nature, he is incredibly confusing. He can empathize; he does it with his 'friend' Karl. He feels a sense of honor and duty toward Tenma. He loves his sister Anna (in his own way) and most probably his mother too, but these are emotions the audience projects on him. Johan mimics human nature, he is capable of imitating empathy yet it is dubious whether he can empathize at all. He understands the extent of the content of man, he is studied and analyzed it, but it can be said that he possibly does not ‘feel’ what it is that makes a man.
In some ways, Johan is reminiscent of the character Yozo from Osamu Dazai’s seminal work ‘No Longer Human’ (recently serialized in manga form by Junji Ito) wherein both the characters can explicitly ‘pass themselves off’ as regular, everyday people but what distinguishes them is that neither can actually feel in the human capacity. They have a dysmorphic sense of alienation which is almost carnivorous and devours the mind and soul. Osamu Dazai committed suicide by throwing himself in the river and we can discern that Yozo was a literary extension of himself on paper and a means of conveying his detachment from the world.
An enigma makes such characters an exciting vessel for litterateurs to explore. Psychology of man is quite fascinating and an attempt to understand the content of the soul and that of mind through storytelling is rather amusing. Yet both these characters continue to be elusive and so open to interpretation that one could take them as blank canvases to paint any right color, much like Locke’s Tabula Rasa.