Dr. Kenzo Tenma is a rising star in the surgical world. Since moving to Germany, this Japanese brain surgeon’s deftness with the blade is setting him on the fast track to a chair at his hospital.
Then he makes the most tragic decision of his young life. Faced with either saving the life of a young boy or the mayor of Dusseldorf, he opts for the boy. The mayor dies. It looks like his career is about to be buried with the mayor.
Then the murders begin.
Ten years later, Tenma discovers he’s saved the life of the most masterful serial killer since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then the deaths get pinned on him, and he must run for his life and prove his innocence. The fate of the world hangs in the balance as this boy is a lot, lot more than just a killer.
Welcome to the world of Monster. Begun as a Japanese manga series in 1994, this dark thriller combines elements of The Fugitive, Les Miserable and Twin Peaks all rolled into one disturbing, unforgettable package. Even more chilling, the series was released as a 74-episode Japanese anime back in 2004. It got picked up by the Syfy network (and its sister station Chiller) in last year, and is rapidly becoming a phenomenon domestically.
No one knows this more so than two of its lead voice actors, Liam O’Brien (as Tenma) and Richard Epcar (Lunge).
These voice acting vets have been in their share of hit anime. O’Brien stars in Bleach (Jushiro), Naruto and its sequel Naruto Shippoden (voicing Gaara, as well as the series co-writer and script editor), as well as Wolverine & The X-Men (Nightcrawler). Epcar, one of the grand old men of the business, in his quarter century as a voice artist he has played lead roles in Robotech (Ben Dixon/Lunk), Ghost in the Shell (Batou) and Bobobo-bo Bo-Bobobo (as Bo^7).
“I actually didn’t know the series at all until I was called up to audition for it,” says O’Brien. “There used to be a time when I would try to find out about shows as soon as they began airing in Japan, but these days it’s all I can do to keep up with what’s on the plate in front of me. So my very first intro to the story was through the audition sides. And it was very clearly not your typical anime about robot fighting teenagers.”
“I was invited by (the series co-writer and director) Rene Veilleux,” Epcar remembers, “who directed me on some other cool projects, actually. I had no idea what it was. It was during a session of something else. So, Rene came up to me and said we’re going to be doing something very different, and I would like you to read for the Inspector. So I said OK, and I got it.”
There was one other thing both men were soon going to get, and that was both their roles were incredibly different than what they are normally known for. Then again, Monster is something one would normally expect from a live action thriller, not a “cartoon.”
“Well, this was a bit of a departure from past series I have worked on,” O’Brien admits. “There are no all powerful shinobi or demons of insurmountable power in this one. Monster is deeply entrenched in the psychology of its characters.”
Admittedly, anime is usually the realm of harem comedies and space action, not psychodrama. It starts in Germany shortly after the collapse of the Wall and the fall of the USSR. The only monsters in this series are human ones, men who range from Tenma’s sociopathic former patient to former Aryan/Soviet supremists out to create a new race of leaders through child abuse. In between Tenma must also contend with jaded old hookers, illegal immigrants, petty thieves and former cold warriors hiding out in Germany’s dark forests. All the while he’s being pursued by another madman, German federal detective Heinrich Lunge, who’s a piece of work himself.
“What’s really cool about doing Lunge is he doesn’t sound anything like me, really,” adds Epcar, whose 6′ 6″ frame usually emotes a booming basso. “He’s completely controlled. Basically, he’s as crazy, if not crazier, than the characters he’s hunting down. So it’s really fun to play him.
“When I saw the guy, obviously I came up with a voice I thought would match. They liked the timbre of my voice, but they wanted it to be more controlled, very cerebral and very, very obsessive. He’s a maniac on the loose, as much of a lunatic basically. He’s so compulsive that when he comes home one night, his wife and daughter greet him at the door only to say they’re leaving him.
“What does he do? He acts relieved because now he can continue his hunt of Tenma unobstructed. In fact, when they’re telling him they’re leaving, he gets a call from headquarters calling him back. So he tells them he has to leave and he’ll talk to them later. Then he leaves. There are other cool things about him and his obsession though. Things I just don’t want to reveal.”
“I think Tenma is one of those rare individuals who never learned to compromise his principles in the face of overwhelming adversity,” continues O’Brien. “Most of us, when confronted with hardship, learn to quickly bend to that external pressure. Unfortunately for Kenzo, it’s not in his DNA. And I think it’s that sense of right, along with the guilt he feels for letting such a monster survive, that drives him through his journey…which is not an easy road to walk. I think he learns over and over again that man can just as easily choose evil as he can good. And it erodes his soul a bit, week after week.
“Which is super fun to revisit ever week for a year, let me tell you! Going to the darker end of the spectrum is always a thrill, but the despair that Tenma is saddled with in this show could get a little heavy for us once in a while. I think that’s what I drew from the most during the recording. We all start off in life with so much hope and promise, and sometimes, that gets chipped away at as we get older. It’s rarely as harrowing as Tenma’s experience, but all the same.”
Actually, one thing both men couldn’t help but notice is how the series puts its own fresh stamp on the Les Miserables/The Fugitive-type of storyline. Lunge is hard pressed in his pursuit of Tenma, who in turn is trying to hunt down the real killer.
“The Fugitive analogies were pretty abundant in the early days of recording, yes,” O’Brien acknowledges, but I never even thought of Valjean! That’s perfect!”
That doesn’t mean their respective characters are ripped right off of the pages of Victor Hugo or Roy Huggins though. Epcar openly states he didn’t base his performances on either Tommy Lee Jones or Barry Morse for that matter.
“He’s not like them,” Epcar states flatly. “There’s nothing really rough about Lunge. He’s actually very refined and focused. I’ve never played a character like this before, and it’s fun to do him because of these different elements. Usually I play the big guys roles. They go after what they want. Lunge is very cautious and manipulative. He’s also a completely different voice for me.”
Yet, as it happens, both men are now as completely addicted to watching the series as are the fans.
“There are actually 74 episodes, and we finished recording all of them,” says O’Brien. “I want to get my hands on the manga now, and read the entire series. I’ve read the first volume, and love the style of it. I like robo babes and samurai as much as the next fellah, but it’s nice to spend some time in the cerebral from time to time.”
“I’ve actually been watching the show, too,” says Epcar. “I usually don’t have time for that, but I’ve become very engaged in the storyline. I love how the story goes back and forth, from key character to another, leaving you wondering just what’s going on. It throws a red herring here, another over there; I think it would actually make an interesting live action film.
“Another thing is this is a true serial. As it goes from show to show, it basically advances the same plot, focused always on the same crime. Most shows you do, there’s a different story every episode, with maybe an overriding major arc. Otherwise it’s a different story every episode. In one sense it’s very much like the old Fugitive series. There Dr. Kimble is hunting for the one-armed man. Here Tenma is after the monster he helped create. It’s something you don’t see in anime very often, if at all.”
Epcar might get his wish in one way. It’s been reported that New Line Cinema has acquired the rights to do a feature-length film of Monster.
In the meantime, the series is springing up around the television world like a plague. It now not only can be seen on Syfy/Chiller, but also on the Funimation Channel, Hulu.com and Viz.com.
“It is pretty amazing,” says O’Brien. “I’m a part of the Bleach and Naruto casts, which are easily the most prevalent anime series in the States. I didn’t think Monster was going to be surrounding me on all sides the way it seems to be now. I am immensely grateful for the role I got to play, and it is of course a joy to see any of your babies take flight!”
In the meantime, Viz has just released its first boxed set of the TV series. While a manga sequel, entitled Another Monster, has been published in Japan, series co-producer Mitsuko Kitajima reports there is no news about that coming to the U.S…at least not yet.