What makes Johan Liebert from Monster one of the most well-written antagonists, despite limited screen time? We're breaking it down for you!
A good antagonist is essential for any story because a powerful villain isn't the one who can destroy the universe with his supernatural strength or the one who loves to kill for no absolute reason. And we do come across villains that leave an impression with their presence onscreen. In anime too, there are many villains who are well-written and unforgettable but the antagonist that stood out for me is Johan Liebert from Monster. His impact was felt even though he had limited screen time. So what makes him a well-written character and one of the greatest anime/manga antagonists?
"What do you think is the ultimate fear? I really thought that I'd already reached the darkest of the dark, but then, ahead of me, I beheld darkness even greater still" - Johan Liebert
The plot of Naoki Urasawa's Monster
A brain surgeon who is dissatisfied with the political bias of the hospital in treating patients, Dr. Kenzo Tenma chooses to operate on a child (Johan Liebert) over the mayor who arrived later in the hospital as Tenma believed that all lives are equal. And for this decision, he loses his social standing. But the hospital director and other doctors who were politically biased were murdered mysteriously and Johan Liebert along with his sister Anna Liebert went missing from the hospital. After 9 years of this incident, Tenma meets Johan again at a construction site where he killed Tenma's patient. Tenma was then suspected by the police and he leaves to find Johan. Tenma learns the scope of the atrocities that Johan committed and vows to fix the mistakes he made by saving Johan's life.
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Johan Liebert is the main antagonist of Monster. He has spent his life at different locations mentioned in the series which kind of explains why each and every incident shown is directly or indirectly related to him. He has been shown as a charismatic man who has an extraordinary skill of manipulating people and he uses his gift to cruelly do so. Sometimes he does it for just personal pleasure that comes from someone else's suffering. Johan was born as a result of a eugenics experiment orchestrated by Franz Bonaparta. They wanted to create a child who will have exceptional intelligence and a flawless appearance and then the experiments in the Red Rose mansion happened. Johan along with her sister ran from custody and was later adopted by the Lieberts. Johan kills the Liebert family and asks Anna to shoot him in the head which she did. Later Johan was saved by Dr. Tenma.
What makes Johan Liebert a great antagonist?
Monster revolves around Johan Liebert. Each and every character or incident is somehow connected to him and every time you come across a new character, you get to unveil a layer of mystery about who Johan Liebert is. And the mystery around this character goes deeper and more disturbing with each reveal. Every event in the story is directly or indirectly associated with him whether he did it himself or he manipulated people to do it. The interesting thing about it is that we rarely see a scene where Johan is manipulating people or killing people himself. The story revolves around political biases, social stigmas, the trauma of characters, and the different ideologies of Dr. Tenma and Johan.
When we first see the antagonist, we don't know much about him but when he's back on screen, the audience is filled with questions about who he is and what his motivations are. And Naoki Urasawa did a great job in a layer-by-layer reveal of Johan's character.
Johan's goal was to watch the world burn and here it isn't about the end of the world and the fall of society by a single person. It was more about showing what impact a single person can make on society. If we relate this to reality, we get to see how some people have a massive influence on society IRL as well. Johan Liebert was not meant to kill everyone he comes across, rather his purpose was to show the darkness of the society that lurks in the shadows. We didn't get to see more of Johan on-screen during the series, instead, we follow Tenma unveiling the mysteries around Johan.
When everything came together!
"Hatred is created when people gather. I just poured a little oil on it."
Johan contrasts with the beliefs of the protagonist and he overpowers the main character and the audience with his conviction. Being the dominant one, he pushes the conflict in the story. Even after being pure evil, you can't hate Johan. No matter how horrifying he's presented in the story, there's something sad and tragic about it especially after learning about his past. The brutal past that he went through showed the desperation of society for power and control. And when we look at Johan, we see him as a victim.
The ending of the series takes place in Ruhenheim where Franz Bonaparta is currently living. He was responsible for experimenting with Johan's birth and the deaths that happened in the Red Rose mansion. Johan somehow distributed guns to the inhabitants of the town after pushing the feelings of distrust among them. And the chaos in the village begins; when the chaos was at its peak, Johan appeared in front of Tenma and asked him to kill him. But Johan gets shot by a drunk man.
This also shows the irony that it only took a moment for things to spiral out of Johan's hand to stop him from madness. What makes Johan a well-written antagonist is how he proved each of his philosophies right in the end. At the end of the series, his ideals do make sense to the audience.