Welcome back to Lessons from Anime!
Taking a break from talking about anything Durarara (my god) I want to give a spotlight to a particular favorite show of mine today. It’s not in my top 10 animes, but it is truly a master work and I’ve written posts about it before: Monster.
This is magnum opus of a thriller, with a wide spread of interesting characters, intrigue, and my favorite villain of all time in anything ever. But I want to talk more about the first aspect today, particularly, the lost art of the slow thriller.
I think we have an idea of thrillers these days that they have to be fast paced. You should be able to rip through them in a day and by the end, be left with your heart pounding. And while there is something to be said for the intense but short thriller, there is also something to be said for a different, but much more difficult route.
The slow thriller, is by no means boring. No, it’s just not littered with gun fights and action set pieces. It relies often on the intricacies of the human mind. Slow thrillers are psychological. While a fast thriller might make your heart race with anticipation, a slow thriller makes your heart race because you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. You know something is going to happen, but you have no idea when and it puts you on edge.
While re-watching Monster, I was struck how well constructed it is as a thriller. It constantly makes you nervous. Constantly. Something idyllic? Nervous. Something quiet? Nervous. A pleasant, nice character is introduced? Nervous. It’s not that things always go wrong either. Sometimes everything turns out great and nice characters live. But you never know. Just about every episode I watched with my roommate, she said the phrase, ‘I don’t trust this’. Which is a pretty good sign that the thriller was doing its job.
So what does Monster do so well that makes it such a stellar, psychological thriller?
Well, it all connects back to the handling of its villain. It takes the first four episodes to build this guy up before revealing him in one of the most intense scenes I’ve ever watched. And then he disappears. His presence doesn’t disappear, but he does not arrive on screen for the next twenty episodes. Instead we just see the results of his work. We see his hand in several dangerous organizations. We meet a group of Neo-Nazis who want to make them their leader, and then stumble across their bodies as the villain has killed them all and written frightening messages on the wall.
When he finally does show up, he does so very casually at the end of an episode that seemed like another fake out for his reveal. And then--boom--he just walks up two characters and engages in casual conversation with them. It’s a great sort of bait and switch.
When we’re not paranoid about the villain, we’re paranoid for the hero who is accused of murder. Every nice person he meets, we wonder if they will ultimately turn him in. The show puts us into his head, giving us a great view of his fear and distrust, contrasting it with his desire to help people even if they turn them in.
Most importantly, the show holds the answers back. The show is dedicated to finding out what made the villain the monster that he is. At first, it seems that his evil was born in a brutal orphanage. But we find out he was screwed up before that. It’s possible that he has an alternate personality because of messages he writes, but then it turns out he’s just quoting a picture book. At some point you’re watching the show just because you want to figure this guy out. And his ultimate fall off the wagon into the depths of depravity is something so oddly simple, which I won’t spoil here. The show isn’t interested in doling out answers immediately. They give them little by little to keep its watchers chomping at the bit the whole way through.
If you’re looking for a good example of a slow burn, psychological thriller, this is the show to watch. It will keep you on the edge of your seat, make you nervous, but also be one heck of a ride.