Johan Liebert and the Concept of Identity (Monster)

(Note: Due to the lack of quality images available for Monster, and my time constraints that don’t let me go watch and take a bunch of screencaps, there will be few images in this post. The few images I show do not belong to me. Credit to original creators and fan artists.)

1) What’s in a Name? More Than You Think.

Image result for johan liebert real monster

Naoki Urusawa’s manga/anime Monster is a masterpiece in every sense of the word, but I’m not posting to praise or review the series as a whole. This is an insight into a character from Monster. I’m interested in psychology and I like sociopaths in anime. My favorite fictional sociopath and psychopath is Johan Leibert. This post is based on my personal interpretation of his story in Monster, so not everything I say is confirmed by the anime. We’ll start by reviewing Johan’s character history– but before that, I want to include the text of the book Johan grew up with, “The Monster Without a Name.” Translations vary, but it goes like this.

“Long, long ago, there was a monster without a name. The monster wanted a name so much he couldn’t bear it. He set out on a journey to search for a name. But the world was so large, so the monster split into two for the journey. One went to the east. One went to the west. The monster that went east found a village. At the village entrance, there was a blacksmith.

“Mister Blacksmith, please give me your name.”


“You think I would give away my name?!”


“If you give me your name, I will go inside you and give you the power of strength.”


“Really? If you can give me the power of strength, you can have my name.”


The monster went inside the blacksmith. Otto the blacksmith became the strongest in all the village. But one day…


“Look at me! Look at me! The monster inside me has grown
this big!”

Crunch, crunch! Crumple, crumple! Crush, crush! Gulp! The hungry monster ate Otto from the inside out. He went back to being a monster without a name. Even when he went into the shoemaker Hans– crunch, crumple, crush, gulp!– he went back to being a monster without a name again. Even when he went into the hunter Thomas– crunch, crumple, crunch, gulp!– sure enough, he went back to being a monster without a name.


The monster went inside the castle to find a wonderful name. Inside the castle was a very ill boy.

“If you give your name to me, I will make you strong.”

“If you can heal me and make me strong, you can have my name.”

The monster jumped inside the boy. The boy became completely healthy. The King rejoiced: “The Prince is well! The Prince is well!” The monster became fond of the boy’s name. He also liked his life in the castle. That’s why, even when his stomach was empty, he endured. Day after day, he was so hungry, but he endured. But one day, because of his great hunger…

“Look at me! Look at me! The monster inside me has grown this big!”

The boy ate the King, the servants, and everyone else. Crunch, crumple, crush, gulp! Since there was nobody left in the castle, the boy departed on a journey. For many, many days, he continued to walk. One day, the boy met the monster that had gone west.

“I have a name! And it’s a wonderful name!”

The monster that went west said, “I don’t need something like a name. Even without a name, I’m happy. After all, we are monsters without names.”

The boy ate the monster that had gone west. Even though he had a name, there was no one left to call him by it. Johan– it was such a wonderful name.

(The End)”

There are many possible meanings to this story, and numerous metaphors, but this post isn’t about interpretting them. Still, in any post about Johan, it’s important to include the text. There’s only one particular meaning I want to draw out of the story for this post, and that is a name as a metaphor for one’s personal sense of identity. Your name is important. It’s part of who you are. There are countless people who believe names have spiritual or supernatural significance, but I mean the biological and psychological development of humans.

Names are, as far as we know, a concept unique to hominids with speech ability and developed left brains. No other creature knows the concept of names. As speech-capable hominids evolved, names became essential to us. They helped form human individuality. And even today, they are crucial to us. A consistent name, and one that we like well enough, is necessary for us to be happy and mentally healthy. We won’t feel loved if others don’t call us by name, and we won’t know exactly who or what we are if we don’t own our own names. Your name doesn’t literally equal your identity, of course. But for some people, and for Johan, having no name is part of why he has no real sense of identity.

2) Evidence of Namelessness

(Johan burns the portrait of his mother)

“Who do you think the real monster is? Was my mother actually trying to save me back then, or did she only mistake me for my sister?”

Johan Liebert

Johan’s mother spent most of her pregnancy trapped in a simple inn and kept under close watch by agents from the Czechoslovakian Secret Police. The twins she carried would one day become the people we know as Johan and Nina. Their father and mother had loved each other, but were originally only brought together for a eugenics project. The couple refused to cooperate anymore and tried to run away, but they were caught, and the man was most likely killed. The Secret Police didn’t kill the woman because she was already pregnant with what they hoped would be the fruits of their project: “genetically and racially superior” children. That’s why Johan’s mother ended up in such a horrible situation.

She became a bitter woman, and who wouldn’t in those circumstances? In addition to all she had been through so far, she had to submit to having her kids taken away for “storytelling,” which was really meant to impart dark and disturbing themes and see how the children reacted. It was yet another experiment. The book that little Johan loved most was “The Monster without a Name” by Franz Bonaparta. He brought a copy home with him and treasured it.

Now it’s important to note that Johan’s name might not have been Johan at that time– he might not have had a name. Monster tells us that Franz Bonaparta gave the mother the idea to name her daughter Anna. So the person we know as Nina was called Anna by her mother and Johan. However, Monster doesn’t say if Johan was given a name. It was General Wolfe, a few years later, who began calling the boy Johan (just before he was sent to Kinderheim 511). The basis of my argument is that he was never given a name by his mother, and that, in fact, she disliked him. The anime doesn’t confirm this, but there are suggestions in the series.

In flashbacks of the childhood of Nina and Johan, they were both dressed as girls by their mother. I think this happened more than once, and it was because the mother loved Anna and girls in general better than a boy like Johan. When the agents came to take a child to the Rose Mansion for an inhumane experiment, the mother struggled between which one to give up. There was one she would rather give away, but she couldn’t tell them apart. I think she meant to have Johan taken away rather than Anna, but made the wrong choice.

Consider Johan’s idealization of and powerful feelings for Anna. Some first-time viewers may not have noticed it, but it’s pretty obvious. He killed all the people who took care of them because none of them were perfect enough to be Anna’s family. Johan told her to shoot him when she discovered this; it was Anna’s right to have his life if he made her unhappy. But he survived, and when he saw Anna, he cried silently and reached out to her, hoping to be forgiven. Johan meant to reunite with Nina on her 20th birthday to see if she remembered him. Later, because those neo-Nazis gathered by The Baby threatened Nina’s life, Johan killed them all. There are many other examples, though let’s stop there.

Johan’s idealization of Anna is a sign that he wasn’t named or treated well himself. His mother continually made Anna out to be the superior child, and Johan followed suit, and took it even further. In Johan’s mind, the only real people in the world are Anna and himself, and he’s second to her, because she is perfect. The world and everything in it should be hers. (Arguably, Johan originally started dressing as a girl to be more like his sister. As an adult, he only seems to do it as a disguise so he can gather information.) Him being willing to die if Anna wished it means that he undervalues his life. He learned that from someone… his mother, who ignored his existence while showering Anna with love.

3) Why Does Identity Matter for Johan?

“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”

Erik Erikson

There’s a favorite book of mine about sociopaths, written by a socially acceptable sociopath. She speculates that maybe the core issue for sociopaths is that they have absolutely no sense of identity. (This is her opinion, and isn’t part of the criteria for the sociopathic disorders.) Empathy and genuine sympathy require remembering or imagining how you would react to whatever the other person is going through. A wrong or shameful act only brings remorse if the action goes against your idea of who you are or should be. How can you understand how pain affects another’s identity when you have no identity yourself?

I believe that people who have trouble with empathy are often so because their identities are in flux constantly; they can be one person one hour and a different one the next. As someone with high-functioning Borderline Personality, I feel similarly. I can be anyone if I try. There is no decided me that I am, or should be. Because of my shaky sense of identity, I see myself as a different kind of living thing than others. Something like a beast or a spirit. I don’t understand humans with their set identities and their complicated emotions. I don’t consider what it felt like for the people I’ve hurt. I can switch identities in a way that lets me block out unpleasant emotions — can’t everyone? And since I don’t feel human, it’s hard to feel empathy for humans.

All that aside, you should see where I’m going with this in regards to Johan. During most of the anime, Johan is 20 or so. By that time, a number of factors have all come together to make him a nameless person with no identity. He is also a true monster, having murdered so many people and continuing to do so when it suits him. Would Johan still be this way if, from early childhood, he had only had a solid grasp of himself and his unique identity?

It’s impossible to say for sure, but I believe he would have been much less of a “monster” and wouldn’t have developed such a sociopathic mind if he had been treated differently by his mother, and hadn’t been exposed to the Nameless Monster book. In addition, if he hadn’t idealized Anna so much and decided he was inferior, he might not have taken the actions he did in the series to erase his existence and all evidence of it. There are also other major contributors to Johan’s “namelessness” I wish to discuss. First, there’s the effect of the book, “The Monster without a Name.” Next are the topics of identity confusion as a result of being twin, having no permanent home, and having his memories tampered with at Kinderheim 511.

4) The Effect of the Monster Storybook

Image result for monster without a name picture book

“A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.”

Rollo May

Johan once said he was a nonexistent person. Mostly, he meant there were few official records or pictures of him, and that he killed most people who knew him. But he also meant something deeper with those words: that he is resigned to being a monster without a name. He’s not even searching for or trying to create his own identity. Yes, he is fond of the name Johan– a wonderful name– but even that was only borrowed from a book. Johan adopts any and all identities that help him further his goals or toy with interesting people. I mean that literally and figuratively. Johan changed names several times as he stayed with several different people– some of his other names were Franz, Hans, and Erich.

What about figuratively? Identities are things Johan takes from others in exchange for giving them power or fulfilling their desires. When he’s bored of them, or they offend him, or he needs to move on, he “eats” or kills his temporary identity, and sometimes the people around him, too. For an example, we’ll examine the case of Hans Schuwald. Bitter and depressed old Schuwald needed to find his real son to be happy. Johan made that happen for him, and in return was given love, trust, a job, and a temporary home by Schuwald. In that environment, he played the part of a caring and genuinely helpful young man, thoughtful and kind to both Schuwald and his son. Johan’s true goal, however, was to have control over Schuwald’s libraries, which contained a copy of “The Monster Without a Name.”

Johan set fire to the libraries during the big donation ceremony, trapping Schuwald and the other people in attendence, intending to burn them all to death. He did so for two reasons. One was to satisfy his hunger for causing chaos and terror; he enjoys scenes where people show great terror. The other reason was his desire to destroy all copies of Franz Bonaparta’s Monster storybook. Speaking of which, doesn’t this situation sound like something from the book? The nameless monster went inside Schuwald and granted his wish. But one day, the monster inside got too big. The hungry monster ate Schuwald from the inside out. He destroyed and threw away the lives of Schuwald, the others at the ceremony, and his own temporary identity.

There’s another key point here. From around age 3 to age 6, Johan kept a copy of Bonaparta’s book and loved it as his only possession. However, it was lost to him after he crossed the border into Germany with Anna. General Helmut Wolf found the twins and sent the boy to Kinderheim 511, where he lost his memories of the monster book (and most other memories). Much later, 20-year-old Johan stumbled on “Nameless Monster” in Schuwald’s libraries. This means for 14 years, he acted just like the monster in the story without realizing it! The point of the Schuwald example is to show that Johan’s life follows the patterns in the monster book. It shaped his psyche when he was a child, and it continues to shape his actions.

Some scientists, who study early childhood development and psychology, believe that our personalities and core ways of thinking are more or less decided by the time we are five years old. This is based on several well-done scientific studies. Most people won’t remember much or any of their lives from ages 3 to 5, but that is the window that was most important in forming your mind, identity, and sense of self. Little Johan and Anna lived trapped in the inn for their childhood, only going out for visits to the Rose Mansion to hear readings of dark stories like “The Monster without a Name.” Johan was extremely receptive to this “teaching.” In those crucial ages of growth, the book was a key factor that made Johan who he is.

5) Other Reasons for Identity Challenges

“Do you have any idea of the terrible meaning of your actions? Do you understand what it means to destroy a person’s sense of good and evil?”

Wolfgang Grimmer

A possible factor in Johan lacking a sense of personhood is that he is/has a twin. I’m not a twin, but I am an “Irish Twin,” which means I have a sibling born within barely a year of me. She was so close to me in age and looks that most people thought we were twins as children. I know for me personally, having such a close sibling created issues with my sense of self. I imagine it must be even worse for twins, but I could be wrong. The issues I’m talking about are things like constantly comparing and constrasting yourself to your sibling, both of you being competitive, sometimes feeling that you are a flawed version of the other one (who is ideal), feeling that you have no identity when you are apart from your sibling, or that maybe all your interests and thoughts have no significance because someone else is literally just the same.

I already mentioned the way Johan idealizes and idolizes Anna/Nina. Based on that, it seems like identity is harder for him to find as a twin. Sometimes, he even confuses himself with her. I have done this too. When I experienced dissociation, I couldn’t remember which one of us had done what or which one I was. In the case of Johan, he thought Anna’s traumatic experience at the Rose Mansion was his own. Even though it really wasn’t his experience, Anna told it to him so many times when he was young that he lived it vicariously. That’s a major red flag for dissociation and identity problems.

Another component of Johan’s unstable sense of self is that he had no real home for most of his childhood (and presumably not a stable one during his teens, either). Ideally, children should have a place they belong throughout childhood. I don’t mean they should live in only one physical home, but they should have an emotional home: a consistent shelter where they know they are cared for. That’s why life is harder for those in foster care. Johan and Anna ran away from their mother– presumably because she sent one of them to the awful experiment in the Rose Mansion– and spent several months wandering through Czechoslovakia. Johan killed anyone who tried to take them in along the way.

After being found by Helmut Wolfe, Johan was sent to Kinderheim 511, which he completely destroyed from the inside. Then he reunited with Anna and they were adopted by the Lieberts. However, Johan killed them too. After the twins ran away from the hospital where Tenma had treated them, they were separated again. Anna was adopted by the Fortners, renamed Nina, and found an extremely loving and stable home. Johan, however, continued to wander, helping various criminals with their crimes. The smart boy found some way to secure food and resources. Eventually– I’m not sure when– he was adopted by another couple also called the Lieberts. Since Anna wasn’t there, these Lieberts didn’t have to be perfect, so Johan felt no need to kill them. The point is he never let himself have a real home.

I mentioned Kinderheim 511 just now. That was another crucial piece of why Johan never established his own sense of self. Johan was already a “monster” before Kinderheim, fascinated with death and terror because of the Rose Mansion, and killing a few couples in Czechoslovakia. Still, he could have grown more stable and maybe found a good life at Kinderheim 511, if only it was the kind of place where that was possible. Of course, it wasn’t. An orphanage in name only, it was really an inhumane social experiment to see if they could raise “perfect” soldiers for East Germany. Fierce competition and fighting among the children was encouraged to naturally sort out the “strong ones” and “leaders” from the rest.

There was also a brainwashing experiment, the purpose of which was to make the children into blank slates, blocking off their memories, erasing their identities, making them apathetic, and removing their ideas of right and wrong. Wolfgang Grimmer had this done to him at Kinderheim at an earlier time, and I included his quote because it’s so applicable. If you remove a person’s sense of good and evil, you remove their emotional identity. If there had been any hope of 8 year-old Johan becoming less monstrous, Kinderheim 511 destroyed the possibility. Johan became afraid of forgetting Anna because of the brainwashing, and in the end, he manipulated everyone in Kinderheim into fighting and killing each other.

6) Closing Thoughts

There are many messages and themes in Naoki Urusawa’s Monster, but one of the most important and prominent ones is personal, emotional identity. The show uses nearly all its characters to explore this theme, and most viewers catch onto it. However, some of them miss the key point that Johan probably became a monster because of his lack of identity. Part of identity is one’s name, in a literal sense, and name can also symbolize who you are in a metaphorical sense. The significance of names is a strong theme in Monster.

I love names. In a way, humans cannot understand anything without understanding the concept of names. Yourself, the world, people, and their relationships will only make sense with names. That’s the point of the beautiful quote below. Even though the author is talking about plants and wild nature, it’s also applicable to the nature of people and our complex societies. So I leave you with this bit of insight.

“When I knew nothing of plants, I experienced a forest only as a tangle of forms, shapes, and colors without meaning or depth, beautiful when taken as a whole but ultimately incomprehensible and exotic. Now, the components of the mosaic had names, the names implied relationships, and the relationships resonated with significance.”

Wade Davis

3 thoughts on “Johan Liebert and the Concept of Identity (Monster)

  1. That was a very good write up and well researched. Johan is a character I consider to be the most underrated anime villain on so many levels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, we should be friends. Lol! Yes, Johan is one of my top 5 favorite anime villains and easily the number 1 most underrated one!! Thanks for reading that post— I know it was pretty long haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess so! Hahaha! I’m sure Johan would be in my Top 5 anime villains in general, but I’m not sure what order. Here’s my list if you want to check it out on my film review blog: https://iridiumeye.wordpress.com/2019/03/26/top-7-underrated-anime-villains/

        No problem!

        Liked by 1 person

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