by C. Noël Rivera
Naoki Urasawa’s Monster holds the distinction of being one of my favorite stories of all time. That’s right—not just a favorite in manga or anime, but in everything. Ever.
Why is that, you ask? Well, it might be a little hard for you to understand or even believe unless you’ve read the manga or watched the series. In that case, I’ll start by asking a question:
Are you a fan of Grade-A Awesome?
You should be. And, if you are, then you’re not going to want to miss this series. Monster will blow your mind. Repeatedly.
Monster originated as an eighteen-volume seinen manga written by Naoki Urasawa (licensed by Viz Media in the U.S.). It was then translated into a seventy-four-episode anime series by Madhouse animation studio (the company also responsible for the ever-popular Death Note animation). Unlike many other manga series that become television programs, Monster is almost one-hundred percent faithful to its ink-and-paper counterpart; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the most direct on-screen translation of a manga that I’ve ever seen. Whoever decided to option Monster for animation was serious about keeping the integrity of the story, and it’s all the better for it.
In regard to the demographic that Monster seeks to reach, seinen manga and programs are generally targeted toward males between eighteen and thirty (other seinen titles include Hellsing and Berserk). I don’t know, exactly, what the basis for this demographic is—I expect it involves the darker nature of the series and the types of relationships that it portrays. I really couldn’t say. All I know is that I like fluffy bunnies as much as the next girl, but I like exciting, realistic, well-crafted stories, too. (What, they don’t have a co-ed demographic for Japanese works?)
I suppose it’s a matter settled entirely by individual personalities and preferences, but I’d like to think that Monster transcends its demographic constraints and reaches out to anyone whose main interests are intelligent, sophisticated storytelling and complex, bomb-dropping plotlines. Monster is a series for people who love story, suspense, and the feeling they get from a well-played reveal. It makes you pay attention, and it makes you ask questions. It’s a story that rises above its medium and, in the right hands, is capable of succeeding anywhere.
I like to place Monster in the genre of psychological suspense thriller. At the same time, it dips its toes into the horror and detective fiction genres. But where it falls among numerous sub-genres and story types really doesn’t matter. This is a series that explores humanity and what humans can become given the right circumstances and stimuli. It takes a look at what kind of people would want to create a monster, and what kind of people who would try to prevent it or to save one. The series is dark but also realistic, which is part of what makes it occasionally frightening. At the same time, it’s punctuated by lighter moments of humor and happiness; it shows the audience that, even during the most difficult times, there’s still relief to be found.
The characters in Monster are real human beings. They have no special powers, and they struggle with their everyday lives. They make mistakes, fall in love, and come to realizations about themselves. This is partly why the story succeeds as well as it does, and why I believe that it’s capable of appealing to just about anyone.
SYNOPSIS (mildly spoilery):
Monster takes place in Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a neurosurgeon originally from Japan, has been working at Eisler Memorial Hospital in Düsseldorf for several years. His star is on the rise, but as he becomes more and more successful, he discovers that the price of his success might be more than his conscience can bear. In direct opposition to the hospital director’s orders, he decides to operate on Johan Liebert, a young boy who has been shot in the head, rather than on the city’s mayor. He saves Johan’s life and, later, meets his twin sister, Anna, who appears to have been psychologically traumatized.
The director demotes Tenma due to his failure to follow orders, and his fiancée (the director’s daughter), Eva, abandons him without pretense. As Tenma struggles with his declining career and social standing, the mystery of the twins and the murders continues to be investigated by the police. However, one night the twins disappear, and the hospital director, as well as two prominent doctors, is found murdered. Tenma suddenly finds himself promoted and on the fast-track to recovering his previous success. This turn of events is both ironic and suspicious, as the murdered doctors were the very ones standing in the way of Tenma’s career.
Nine years later, middle-aged couples all around Germany are being found murdered, and one of the suspects, Adolf Junkers, becomes a patient at the Eisler Memorial Hospital. Tenma gets to know Junkers, who later reveals to Tenma that the rest of his crew was killed by “a monster” who hired them to commit the crimes. When the police guard on Junkers is killed, and he flees, Tenma follows only to become witness to the moment of Junkers’ execution. It’s then that he discovers that the man behind the murders is the boy whose life he saved nine years before.
Convinced that it’s his responsibility to stop Johan from hurting anyone else, Dr. Tenma leaves Düsseldorf and attempts to track him. However, there’s someone on Tenma’s trail as well. BKA Inspector Runge, who was assigned to the murder cases when they first began, believes that Johan is a figment of Tenma’s imagination and that the doctor himself is responsible for everything that has happened.
What follows is more than just a chase, and from this moment on the series becomes narratively irresistible. Other events come to light and, with them, questions about the nature of what Johan is doing and why. The suspense doesn’t let up in this series; every time a question receives an answer it also reveals something entirely new. Tenma’s search for the truth and for Johan’s whereabouts is merely the main thrust that carries the viewer through a thrilling cluster of events.
This synopsis doesn’t do justice the complexity that is Monster‘s storyline, but it does give an overview of how it all begins. One thing you can be certain of, though, is that this series doesn’t lack for twists, turns, ups, downs, and random inside-out whirly-gigs. Just when you think things are slowing down, or when you’ve stopped and wondered where Tenma has got off to, that’s when it jumps out at you again and makes you cry like a little girl (or, if you’re like me, squee happily like one…I’m looking at you, episode 28). And don’t even get me started on the dramatic irony in this series—I’ve never wanted to write warning letters to fictional characters so badly in my life.
Dr. Kenzo Tenma: Man of Convictions
Tenma might as well be likened to a puppy dog—one that trusted everyone until the day that someone kicked it.
Tenma begins this story as an optimist and, some might say, as an innocent. He’s naive to what’s happening around him and to the political maneuvering going on in the hospital. Oh, it only takes one episode before that naivety begins to be brutally stripped away; you’ll spend a lot of time feeling sorry for Tenma in the beginning, but you’ll also wonder how he managed to make it so far without understanding what the world is really like.
Slowly, oh so slowly, Tenma’s head is filled with the stuff of nightmares. His foray into Johan’s past reveals far more terrible history than he probably ever wanted to know, but he pushes through it all and, in the process, becomes more fierce, more morose, and more experienced.
Tenma believes that he did something terrible when he saved Johan’s life; he believes that only he is capable of righting this wrong. His conviction is strong—he flees a police investigation, learns how to use a gun, and leaves everything behind in his quest to find and stop Johan. He’s focused on this goal but, unlike some other characters, he doesn’t become blind to what’s around him. He is still susceptible to the suffering of others and to the knowledge that, should anyone come with him, that person’s life will be in danger. Tenma is still a doctor—he still wants to save people.
What he neglects to realize is that he’s destroying himself in the process. Sure, he has a martyr’s mentality—he’s willing to sacrifice himself and his own humanity in order to save lives that might be ended should Johan have his way. But that’s not what I mean. Tenma has no sense of himself as an individual—he’s so completely focused on this grander ideal that he neglects to eat, neglects to sleep, and neglects to realize that he’s breaking himself down (this is particularly noticeable during the Munich arc).
Yet, if someone else were to do the same thing right in front of him, he’d rebuke them for it. Tenma’s is a case of do what I say, not what I do.
Johan Liebert: Beautiful Evil
Tvtropes.org classifies Johan Liebert as a “Complete Monster.” In fact, he’s the poster boy for the category (That’s not a joke. An image of him is used as the visual example. Also, the caption always makes me laugh–because it’s true).
There’s no denying that Johan is Evil (or, as I like to call him, Beautiful Evil) with a capital E. In fact, he’s so evil and so messed up and so good at it that it’ll leave you breathless and possibly in awe of what, in the annals of evil history, must be considered Mad Skillz.
Just take a look at the whole Kinderheim 511 plot in which it comes to light that Johan was responsible for a massacre without even having to lift a finger. He’s the perfect example of someone capable of causing catastrophe through sheer force of influence. And, boy, does he have influence.
In fact, Johan has a masterful understanding of most concepts, including strategy, social networking, cruelty, and the application of terror. I mean, he speaks perfect Latin, for Heaven’s sake. But influence is the secret of Johan’s success. His ability to take elements of your life and just talk about them is unreal; he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty, for the most part, because he knows exactly what to say to get you to do all the work for him. Not that he isn’t capable of pulling the trigger. Oh, is he ever. But if he can make someone else kill for him or, even better, kill themselves, well…why not?
Johan can make children jump off of bridges. I’m just sayin’.
Oh, the list of Johan plot points gets even better. All of those comparisons made between him and his sister? Yeah, don’t take those lightly.
Of course, some might argue that a lot of Johan’s issues stem from his childhood. They might say, “Oh, he’s not really evil. Just traumatized and in need of genuine loving attention.”
To some degree that might be true, and I won’t deny that Johan has a plethora of mommy issues. But here’s the thing—the so-called “trauma” that he experienced as a child—it wasn’t even really his experience at all (oh you’ll love getting to that plot point). He absorbed someone else’s trauma and made it his own.
I’m pretty sure that anyone in the Monster universe would, without hesitation, claim, “That kid was messed up when I met him.” And it would be absolutely true.
Johan is the embodiment of chaos, pure and simple. Much of what he does has no ultimate purpose. It’s simply an experiment meant to satisfy his curiosity as to what will happen as a result of mucking about with the status quo. If I burn down a building, what will happen? If I shoot this person, what will happen? If I destroy this person’s faith in humanity, what will he do? He puts people up against his projected calculations to see whether or not they will meet his expectations.
When it comes to revealing the true face of humanity, Johan is curious like a child, but he utilizes the destructive powers of a mostly ambivalent god in the satisfaction of that curiosity.
After all of that, I have to admit that Johan is my favorite character. With nothing but a glance, he would make my other favorite villains fall down and call for their mothers. For me he’s just the ultimate of ultimate evil characters. Maybe that makes me a sucker, I don’t know. If I were a character in the show, it would most certainly mean my death.
Yet there’s a side to Johan that is, in itself, tragic. It’s difficult to see, but, by the end of the series, I believe that it’s somewhat revealed. Johan has questions of his own that he needs to have answered—these answers eat away at his core and distort his outlook on life and on people. The saddest thing about Johan is that he’ll never be able to have those questions answered.
Nina Fortner, aka Anna Liebert: The Girl Next Door (Almost)
If a monster had a twin sister, what would she be like?
Apparently, she’d be pretty darn normal, assuming that she, like Nina, has been living as an amnesiac for the majority of her life.
Nina Fortner, aka Anna Liebert, is a regular girl. She goes to college (she wants to be a lawyer), loves her family, holds a part-time job, and has friends. Nina’s life isn’t particularly complicated, and she’s as happy as any other ordinary girl her age. That is, until her twentieth birthday, when her past returns with quite the unwelcomed “hello.”
But Nina is strong. When her world is turned upside down, and her memories begin to resurface, she doesn’t hesitate to pick herself up and take charge of her own destiny. She’s not a shotgun-toting, chain-smoking, leather-clad bad-ass chick, but she’s tough, and she isn’t afraid to face anyone—not even a group of Neo-Nazi conspirators. In fact, she scares the bejeezus out of at least one of them.
Come on, she’s Johan’s sister. You can’t be related to him and be weak of personality.
There’s a lot going on with Nina, and most of it isn’t revealed until the series starts coming to an end, but it’s clear that she has experienced a lot and endured a lot. She has made a lot of hard decisions, and she hasn’t been afraid to back them up with actions.
In fact, that’s the one thing that you should really understand about Nina Fortner. She’s a woman of action. When it comes to her schooling, she might be tardy, but she’ll be prepared to answer questions when she finally arrives. She works hard, and she studies hard. She isn’t afraid to pick up a gun when it’s necessary or to put it down when it’s not. She isn’t afraid to abandon her normal life, in search of the truth and her brother, for as long as it takes.
If any character in Monster is someone you should aspire to be like, it’s Nina. Even when she’s in the thick of things, and everywhere she looks there’s a more frightening memory to recall, she sticks with it. She might be afraid, but that doesn’t stop her. She takes this fight seriously.
Best of all, she isn’t a depressing character. She’s still happy despite the uncertainties all around her, she’s still friendly to the people she meets, and she wants to help those closest to her.
If everyone was Nina Fortner, none of this weirdness would be happening.
Inspector Heinrich Runge (or Lunge): Obsession Personified
Yes, I’m going to go there right from the beginning—the issue of the BKA inspector’s real name is a source of contention for fans who were familiar with Monster prior to the manga’s release in the U.S. To this end, I have only one thing to say:
Somebody screwed up.
This is not surprising—merely disappointing. Translators have a tendency to overdo it when it comes to translating the r sound in Japanese to l where it isn’t always necessary. Sometimes they really do mean to use an r.
How do I know, you ask? Well, there are two facts that I can cite to back up my claim that the name Lunge in the U.S. release should be Runge.
1.) Runge is an actual German surname. Lunge is not. A little bit of fact checking would have informed the translators of this—how could they possibly miss the fact that Runge comes complete with a coat-of-arms? The only reference that I managed to find in my search for the name Lunge was as a spelling derivation of the name Lunk. But in terms of a widely recognized surname, I could find nothing for Lunge. Runge was more than prominent. (If it were any other writer, I might believe that he hadn’t paid attention to proper foreign names, but Naoki Urasawa frequently uses German names and references in his stories—I have no doubt that he would have chosen a name that actually exists in Germany.)
2.) In the anime version of Monster, there is visual proof of the spelling. In episode 31 the name Runge can be seen on the inspector’s badge, and in episode 74 it can be seen on a newspaper article.
I realize that not everyone cares about the details, and I’m not going to beat this controversy to death. I merely had to address it for those who, like me, care about the correct name of a pivotal character.
After all—Runge is the kind of person who would care about the details.
But about the character himself, it was recently pointed out to me that Inspector Runge matches a certain archetype—that of the man who needs to track and capture something or someone so much that he neglects to realize when he’s gone too far. He ignores everything around him and, in the process, loses other things that should have been important to him.
In short, Runge is Captain Ahab, and Tenma is his white whale.
The conviction with which Runge believes Tenma is guilty requires a single-mindedness reserved for fanatics. Yet Runge would never consider himself a fanatic; indeed, he believes himself to be cool and objective about everything. His mind works on careful calculation, and those things that do not fit into his calculations do not exist for him. Tenma alone exists in his reality, and any claims that there might be another perpetrator for the crimes are brushed off as merely a part of Tenma’s imagination.
That’s right—don’t think that Tenma didn’t explain everything to Runge. He told him about Johan, the twin sister, and everything that happened on the night of Junkers’ death. But Runge is unable to believe these stories. The moment he decided Tenma’s guilt, he became incapable of believing them.
To break himself out of this tunnel vision, Runge has to remove himself from his own mind. He has to enter a land of fantasy in which Tenma does not exist. Focusing on something else, under the guise of being on vacation, is the only way for Runge to give even the least bit of credence to the story of the twins. For him it becomes a fairy tale, and he follows that tale straight to ground zero.
Eva Heinemann: The Drunken Ex
As much as I’d like to claim that I don’t like Eva Heinemann, the truth is, I do. Granted, she can be incredibly frustrating, and her reasoning isn’t always sound. But, then, isn’t that the point?
Eva Heinemann represents the ordinary human being.
Eva only became Tenma’s fiancée in order to continue the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. As the leading neurosurgeon in the country, he was on a fast-track to the directorship after her father’s retirement, and she had every intention of being the wife of the director. But when Tenma’s position began to decline, she abandoned him.
Eva had an agenda, she was spoiled, and she was spiteful. She didn’t know how to live a simple life, and her treatment of Tenma was suspect at best. Her assertion that “not all lives are equal,” which is partly responsible for Tenma’s crisis of conscience, is understandably abhorrent from a viewer’s standpoint. Yet it’s a position that more than one ordinary person is likely to have, whether they know it or not.
It’s easy to become irritated by Eva, especially in the beginning. Later, during her downward spiral, it becomes a bit difficult to discern what’s happening in her head. But it comes down to one thing: she regrets her past decisions.
With Tenma gone, Eva realizes that she missed out on the best thing in her life. She understands that she made a poor decision based on her spoiled upbringing and, in doing so, lost a man who was genuinely good to her and who could have made her feel truly wanted for herself rather than for her money and position.
Granted, she doesn’t come to this realization right away. Instead, she attempts drown her regrets in alcohol and sheer spite. When Tenma refuses to come back to her, she becomes angry and resentful rather than facing her true feelings—sadness and loneliness. Her attempts to keep Tenma under suspicion by the police are all a part of her attempts to hide the truth from herself and to avoid facing the fact that Tenma will never come back to her.
What makes Eva an ordinary human being is that she behaves the way anyone might behave in a similar situation—she makes decisions based on emotional reactions. More often than not, that causes her to make bad choices, and it certainly casts her in a bad light for most of the series. Nevertheless, she has the all-too-human tendency to strike out based on her own subjective feelings. This distinguishes her from a “monstrous” character like Johan who is cold and calculating in his every move.
But Eva, like the other characters in Monster, matures. She finally sees beyond herself and is capable of reaching some level of emotional closure; this allows her to accept what has happened in the past so that she can take action in the present.
Dieter: Soccer Ball Humanity
While, perhaps, not a linchpin character, Dieter does represent something important in the Monster universe: simplicity and the ability to let go.
Though Dieter comes from a dark place—from a background of both abandonment and abuse—his connection and association with Tenma prevents him from becoming like the children of Kinderheim 511. Tenma gives Dieter someone to believe in. His assertion that “tomorrow will be a good day” becomes the thing that Dieter absorbs and believes in wholeheartedly. It completely replaces what he had previously been taught—that “the world is pitch black.”
In turn, Dieter offers Tenma a reminder that someone needs him. For much of the series, he travels with Tenma, and it is his presence that keeps Tenma connected with the rest of humanity.
The soccer ball represents the simplicity of Dieter’s desires. His past means nothing to him. His memories do not plague him because he was given the assurance that the future will be brighter. With that belief, he is able to focus on what is in the present. He dreams only of having a soccer ball. He loves to eat. He wants to be close to the friends he’s made. The things that Dieter wants are simple things, and this is what he must help the other characters remember.
When Nina’s memories become too much for her to bear, Dieter tells her it’s all right. He tells her that she doesn’t need to remember those things—she should just go home. He wants her to be able to forget her past and to believe in the same good things that he, himself, believes in. She follows his advice for a time and, in the end, the break from the memory chase gives her the strength that she needs in order to uncover and face the most difficult part of her past.
For Dieter, tomorrow will be a good day. This is all that he wants, and it’s all that he wants for his friends.
Wolfgang Grimmer: The Happiest Sad Man
If you’re not in love with Grimmer after his initial introduction to the story, then I don’t know what to tell you. Good wine and good cheese, people. Wine and cheese.
Grimmer represents the result of the Kinderheim projects as they were originally performed (as opposed to the results that involved Johan). Living a normal life has been difficult for him; he doesn’t possess the same capacity for emotional expression that “normal” people possess, yet he has lived his life pretending to understand those things. He is constantly smiling, not because he feels happy but because smiling was one of the hardest things for him to learn after his conditioning. This has proved a great source of frustration and confusion for Grimmer, though he does not seek to confront it until he becomes mixed up with Tenma and the search for Johan.
But it always seems as though, despite his lack of emotional awareness, Grimmer does have emotions in abundance. His interest in the well-being of others, particularly for orphans, is either a grand farce or simply something that he hasn’t yet recognized within himself. He has a great capacity for friendship and kindness, even to the point of self-sacrifice. Grimmer may believe that he does this because his life is worth less than someone else’s, but he’d probably the only person who believes it.
There are other aspects to Grimmer that appear as a result of the Kinderheim projects; these aspects become part of the climactic end events, as does his eventual self-actualization. And, if I may say so, together they create one of the more poignant moments in the series.
Roberto: The Devil’s Minion
Look out. Just when you think you know who your friends are, who your business partner is, or who that random guy across the street is, you’ll turn out to be wrong. Because it’s actually Roberto coming to kill you.
There’s not a lot I that I can say about Roberto without giving up a lot of spoilers. In another article that might be all right, but in this one, I’m not quite prepared to do that. So, I’ll just say this:
Roberto vs. Runge. Showdown. Oh yeah.
Franz Bonaparte: That Damn Guy
I’m not going to say a lot about Franz Bonaparte, either (in fact, you can’t even have a picture); doing so would give away far too much. Just know that there are a lot of questions associated with this man, and a number of answers as well. In fact, I had to watch the series twice before I fully understood the lengths to which he’s responsible for what happens.
But this is also a character for which I have conflicting feelings. It’s inevitable that the viewer dislikes him when he is first introduced to the story; however, by the end he has seen such a reversal in his ideas and beliefs (and finding out why is the real kicker) that you ultimately feel sorry for him.
The Franz Bonaparte story arc is one of the best. Wait, what am I saying? It’s the climactic arc. I’ll leave you with that and wish you luck in remembering all of his pseudonyms.
Before I continue, I want to say a few things about Monster’s animation. In short, it has its ups and downs, but (with one exception) I generally only remember the ups.
The color palette for this series was well chosen. It’s subdued and earthy, which plays into the dark reality over the story’s events; bright colors are reserved for very particular moments and serve to offset a scene from its usual mood.
The color also accents the lighting technique, which has always been one of the best aspects of the animation. It’s not at one-hundred-percent all the time, of course; production values would be through the roof if that were the case for every frame (although, I’d certainly be hypnotized by the visuals). However, there are a few key moments where the artistic crew really shows its stuff. I distinctly remember the drinking glass full of ice and amber liquid, sitting in the sunlight—it has continued to be one of my favorite visuals from the show, and I suspect I’m not the only one who remembers it.
As far as the animation goes, it’s fairly standard in terms of quality. During key moments, of course, it becomes exceptional—and if anything really impresses me (besides that glass in the sunlight) it’s the use of “camera.” The scene direction is very well handled, and it facilitates the action perfectly.
And, of course, I’ll be glad to say it again—I’m extremely impressed by the animation’s fidelity to the manga. In some cases, it’s like the scenes were lifted directly off the page and colorized. I see this done so rarely that it continues to surprise me. If only other adaptations were capable of being this detailed….
As someone who has previously worked with animation, however, I can be a bit critical—especially about the things I love. I’m simply not able to get what is, probably, the worst animation scene of the series out of my head. This isn’t a big deal—it’s not even a critical episode—but every time I see Tenma jumping rope in episode 9, I burst into laughter. It’s one of the worst animation cycles I’ve ever seen, which, in my mind, makes it absolutely hilarious. Watch for it. You can’t miss it.
But one of the other things that I find wonderful about the animation is the expression. When I watch Tenma or any of the other characters during a moment of emotional shock or rage or sadness, I really feel it. The animation expresses the feelings of the characters very well, and in a story like this one, that’s absolutely essential.
For years I’ve been anxious for a U.S. release of this series; at the same time, I’ve been hoping that no one in the States would touch it. This is mostly out of the fear that it will receive a horrific dub job that sucks the life from the experience that is watching Monster. I could only imagine my reaction if Dr. Tenma was turned into an obnoxious whiner, Nina made to sound like a thirteen-year-old valley girl on helium, or Johan’s soft-spoken voice replaced by that of a megalomaniacal baritone. The very idea is perception shattering, and it would have completely undermined one of the most fascinating elements of the show—the characters.
That said, it’s official: Monster began running on SyFy’s Ani-Monday line-up starting October 12. I’m both excited and terrified by this eventuality. On one hand, this makes Monster accessible to a whole new range of people, and it should have that opportunity to be appreciated. On the other, if the production company does a terrible job, well…not only will it make me seethe with anger, but it’ll ruin the story for everyone else.
I shall, however, remain optimistic. I do recognize one or two names from the cast list on Anime News Network; those people have pretty good reputations. However, at the time I’m writing this, there’s still no word on Johan’s voice actor. That will, undoubtedly, make or break my good opinion of the production. Whoever you are, English-Johan, good luck.
But what’s the best part about this release? Why, it’s the official collection of Monster episodes on DVD, of course. Yes, I know this for a fact. The first box set is slated for release on December 8. My order is already in.
I sincerely hope that these episodes will be uncut. An abridged version of this series would be a travesty.
Naoki Urasawa has written several other manga series, including 20th Century Boys and Pluto, both of which are available in the U.S. from Viz Media.
C. Noël Rivera is a freelance artist and reviewer with a (borderline unhealthy) obsession with books. She has a degree in animation which, apparently, isn’t enough; she has returned to the academic sphere to pursue a second degree in English literature and editing. In her spare time she runs the book review site The Reader Eclectic. Her interest in the science fiction and fantasy genres began when her father introduced her to the original Star Trek and she fell head-over-heels for Mr. Spock. This blind genre devotion is eclipsed only by her love of sleeping and her mother’s chicken casserole.
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