Throughout the anime industry's broad history, there have been many iconic villains that fans and communities have latched onto. However, even the strongest of antagonists will eventually fade, replaced by whatever bigger, scarier threat is introduced next.
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster doesn’t have this issue. In fact, Johan Liebert, is one of the most complex and menacing antagonists of all time, and the reason why is painfully clear.
Johan’s Nihilistic Personality Makes Him Complex In a Terrifying Way
There’s no argument among Monster fans: Johan is extremely nihilistic. When he's first introduced in Monster, Johan seems to have a death wish. As the series progresses, this idea is hammered in by Johan's personal philosophies. Johan’s nihilism is extremely present in the story and is shown in many ways.
At the very beginning of Monster, the great neurosurgeon, Dr. Tenma, saves an important public figure under the orders of the hospital director. Afterward, Tenma is confronted by a Turkish woman who says her husband has died because Dr. Tenma didn’t operate on him even though he was brought into the hospital first. Filled with grief, Tenma is on a date with his fiancée, Eva, and he tells her about the situation, hoping she’ll agree it isn’t his fault. She agrees, adding “Not all lives are made equal.” Her words stir something inside Tenma, and forshadow the events that follow.
While this scene does not depict Johan’s nihilism, nor does it feature Johan, it is very important for the story. If someone is a “true nihilist”, they believe all values hold no meaning -- they do not believe in religion or have any loyalties to anyone or anything. They only seek to destroy. While this could be considered true for Johan, he doesn’t seem to fit all the criteria for a truly nihilistic person because he still holds an attachment to his twin sister, Nina -- whom he knows as Anna. Nonetheless, there isn’t any doubt Johan does seek to destroy and erase himself from existence. These traits turn Johan into a terrifying depiction of a monster.
Johan’s Uses His Charisma and Good Looks to Manipulate Others
Two other traits aside from nihilism are heavily emphasized within Johan's character, he's oozing charisma, and many people find him attractive. Throughout the series, there are many who describe Johan as "pretty", or "beautiful". Even when he’s dressed as his sister to sneak around the city, many people notice his natural beauty Even if Johan never says so himself, there is no doubt he uses his charisma and physical charm to get people to manipulate people, so he can get what he wants -- usually some form of destruction or chaos.
For example, about halfway through Monster, Johan befriends a fellow college student named Karl. Johan does a lot of good for Karl like helping him reunite with his biological father, Hans Georg Shuwald, but ultimately harms the two of them in the future. Johan almost kills Shuwald during a fire he sets, and while Johan doesn’t manipulate Karl in a direct way like many of his other victims, this is a great example of how easily Johan can win people’s trust, learn about their lives and then destroy everything in an instant.
Johan's Actions Keep Viewers Guessing
Johan is not an expressive character -- he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. So, it can be very difficult to read his motives at times or figure out what he is going to do next. There are only a few times throughout the series where Johan expresses his emotions directly. Though, the interpretation of these scenes is very much left up to the viewer to understand. Johan cries at the very beginning of the anime when he's reunited with his sister, but it's never directly explained why he's crying.
In Monster, Season 1, Episode 33, “A Child’s View”, Johan finds a children’s book called The Nameless Monster. He and Nina read it multiple times when they were kids, so it may hold a special meaning for Johan. However, when Johan begins reading the book, he starts trembling, then he screams and collapses. This is one of the few times the viewer sees Johan express terror or any other emotion. It also draws the viewer deeper into the story and intrigues them, making them wonder why he reacted in such a way.
This is one of the traits Johan has that makes him an excellent antagonist for Monster. It keeps the viewers trying to guess what will happen and what direction Johan will take the story in. Even though Tenma is the primary protagonist and the main character in the series, Johan is the one who pulls the strings, orchestrating most of what the rest of the cast does and what will happen.
Monster is an exciting psychological horror created by Naoki Urasawa. From it spawned Johan Liebert, one of the greatest and most exciting antagonists of all time. What makes Johan interesting is his unconventionally nihilistic personality and the way he uses his charisma to manipulate his victims.