Anime, Series

Doctor Tenma: A Reminder that the World Doesn’t Need More Monsters

We live in strange, bleak times. No one is safe from the fear and stress that the COVID-19 virus has wrought upon the world, and for those of us lucky enough to have the resources and means to peace out from the stress often turn to the realms of fiction for respite.

While our previous Peace-Out Show™ recommendation, Cells at Work, is light-hearted and very wholesome, my personal choice of a Peace-Out Show™ is anything but. I present: Naoki Urusawa’s Monster.

First, some background.

Whenever I try to summarize Monster for my friends who have never heard of it, I tell them about the well-meaning young doctor that chooses to save a young boy who turns out to be a serial killer. But that’s a gross oversimplification of a highly complex story told over the course of 74 beautifully animated episodes.

Monster (both the original manga and the anime adaptation) has received many awards over the past two decades, and it’s lauded as a masterpiece that broke the mold of storytelling in manga and anime during its time.

The story gets heavy and dark at times, but one of the big reasons I’ve turned to this show while on quarantine is the main protagonist: Doctor Kenzo Tenma.

The hero we need, but don’t deserve

There are many, many interesting characters in the Monster series, but Tenma is still my favorite, hands down.

Young Doctor Tenma in Episode 1 of Monster
Younger Doctor Tenma talking to his colleagues after a successful surgery

From the very start of the show, it’s established that Tenma is a kind, well-meaning doctor who only wants to help everyone around him. It’s the kind of sweet, trusting naïveté that you just know will end up harming him down the line.

And harm him, it did. His trusting and kind nature is often exploited and abused, and throughout the series you watch Tenma go through every kind of hardship at the hands of people who turn out to be monsters.

Director Udo Heinemann and Doctor Kenzo Tenma in Monster
Udo Heinemann, the director of the hospital Tenma works in (and his fiancee’s father) is one of the first to betray him.

But the amazing thing about Tenma is that, throughout the series, he somehow maintains his integrity as that kind, well-meaning man you meet as a young 20-something genius doctor in the very first episode.

A decade into the storyline, Tenma is older, tougher, and scruffier—a man unafraid of death, who doesn’t hesitate to pull a gun on someone he perceives as a threat.

Doctor Tenma protecting Dieter in Episode 11 of Monster

Despite all that, he still believes in treating all human lives as equal. He may get angry at the injustices of the world and rage against those who inflict suffering upon others, but he still saves them when and where he can—whether through medical treatment or words of advice.

Even though he spends most of the series trying to kill the monster he thinks he created, it’s very clear that he is taking the burden upon himself for the sake of saving more lives, not in cold blood and not for personal gain. It’s really not in his nature to harm people.

Doctor Tenma in Episode 37 of Monster
Tenma struggling to convince himself to shoot someone trying to kill him

With all the current news of people in power abusing their authority or operating purely on self-interest, Tenma’s genuine concern for other people feels like a breath of fresh air.

Doctor Tenma in Episode 37 of Monster

I know Monster is a work of fiction and it might be weird to put a fictional character like Tenma up on a pedestal like this. But in these bleak times where it’s easy to give in to fear or selfishness and unleash the monsters within us, characters like him teach us an important lesson:

Just because you’re surrounded by monsters doesn’t mean you have to become one.

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