(74 episodes, 2004-2005)
My previous exposure
Well, it’s an adaptation of a critically-acclaimed manga, so I’d at least heard of the basic premise well before coming close to it. I’ve mostly avoided spoilers, although I did hear of a particular thing Johan does in Prague, which thus didn’t surprise me when I reached it.
I actually watched the first 20 episodes of this way back in 2009, and only went back to it very recently. The reasons why should become clear below.
What’s it about ?
In the late 80s, Dr Kenzo Tenma was a promising up-and-coming Japanese brain surgeon in Germany… until he decided to save the life of a 11-year-old boy called Johan who got mysteriously shot in the head, instead of the mayor he was supposed to operate on. This basically cripples his career… for a few days, until the top management get mysteriously poisoned and the new management give him his status back. Meanwhile, Johan has disappeared…
Flash forward to 9 years later, when Johan re-enters Tenma’s life by shooting one of the doctor’s patients right in front of his eyes. (The man was an agent of Johan’s who was getting a bit too talkative.) It turns out that Johan is a charismatic monster, leaving a bloody trail behind himself, and he’s very thankful of Dr Tenma for saving his life. Did the doctor do the wrong thing by saving the not-so-innocent child ?
Dr Tenma soon finds himself accused of the various aforementioned murders, and is on the run from the cold but very clever Inspector Runge (who thinks Johan doesn’t exist and is an alternate personality of Tenma’s). Can the fugitive stop whatever Johan’s up to before it’s too late ? And is the good doctor really going to kill Johan, however much of a monster he is ?
Secondary threads of the series follow Nina, Johan’s twin sister (who shot him in the first place), who tried to forget it all before Johan suddenly killed her adoptive family ; and Eva, Tenma’s former fiancée who entered a self-destructive spiral after she dumped him during his short disgrace. Another big question involves the investigation of Johan’s past : how exactly does such a monster come into existence ? Who’s responsible ? It’s not an easy question, especially considering how Johan is now being quite thorough in his quest to eliminate everyone linked to his past in any way…
What did I think of it ?
It’s certainly a very strong story… but I don’t think the anime version really does it justice. It’s a flawed adaptation that I had trouble to keep watching because of how much it tries to play it safe. It’s obviously trying to stick as close to the source material as possible, including every single detour despite how inconsequential some of them may be. The pacing is sluggish, with some very obvious padding techniques carrying the series from cliffhanger to cliffhanger (despite not much really happening between them). That kind of thing isn’t suspenseful, it’s just irritating. A third of the anime’s length could probably have been cut without losing much.
I got the impression that this really wanted to be a live-action series, with all the lack of creative use of the medium this implies. The realization is very pedestrian, bringing absolutely nothing in to make the story visually compelling. I’m not asking for Death Note-style flourishes, but at least something should have been done to keep the series from being so boring (which surely a story like this has no right to be !). Compounding the problem is the general grey-and-brown palette, especially for people ; the bland colors dull the strikingness of Urasawa’s angular character designs. Those are not characters with realistic appearances, however much the anime tries to hide that. As a result, the series loses a lot of impact and immediacy.
Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy watching the series ; but there’s a lot of tediousness in between the good parts. While I didn’t particularly care for Tenma and Johan remained an enigma till the end, there were lots of fascinating side characters that helped carry the story along the rough patches (ah, Grimmer…). The questions the show asks about human nature and how can evil be born are poignant ones, and the eventual denouement is quite clever. The coincidence level is a bit too high (I raised an eyebrow at the background of Tenma’s lawyer, which is a bit too conveniently connected to the rest of the story), but it mostly works out. Still, I’m not sure the series completely delivers on explaining Johan’s evil (the final crucial part of his background doesn’t feel like much of an explanation to me), and there are large parts of his behavior that I don’t really understand (for example, why did he protect Grimmer in Prague ?).
But what this series really lacks is energy, as well as writers daring enough to cut the chaff out and make the plot much tighter. That’s what prevents it from being the masterpiece of storytelling it could have been.