The 20th Century Boys saga begins in 1969 when a young boy named Kenji and his friends write The Book of Prophecy. In the book, they write about a future where they fight against an evil organization trying to take over the world and bringing about Doomsday. Years later in 1997, a mysterious cult being lead by a man only known as Friend has emerged and gained strong influence over society. A series of catastrophic events begin to occur, mirroring the prophecies made up by the young Kenji. The greatest fear is that the climax of The Book of Prophecy will become a reality: on December 31st, 2000, a terrifying giant virus-spreading robot will attack the entire city of Tokyo, leading to the end of mankind. The only people who know about The Book are Kenji and his childhood friends. Who is Friend? Will Kenji and his friends are able to save mankind and live to see the 21st Century?
20th Century Boys: Chapter 1
This movie, right from the outset, faces an intimidating task. Not only is the source material (a manga by Naoki Urasawa) massive and complex, involving a long, looping plot; it also happens to be my favourite manga of all time. One of my favourite stories in any medium. So for it to really impress me would be incredible, because no matter how much expectations are tempered, it's always going to be compared to the source material. Really, any adaptation should be looked at as it's own beast, but for a fan of the source material, with all the best will in the world, this is never going to be the case.
The story decides to deviate immediately from the comic, showing us a number of seemingly unconnected scenes. We get a rather cliche speach from a little boy about fighting against the odds, and how that makes you a man; we get a child dancing to T-Rex's 20th Century Boy as it is piped over the school sound system; we get a man trapped in a prison cell, talking of how he was arrested for drawing manga. The latter is our framing device, as the rest of the story is being narrated by the man in the cell next to the beleagured artist's. This is not perhaps the ideal start to the movie - the scene is a good five to ten minutes of the artist telling us how bad everything is and how sad he is, whilst sad string music plays in the background. For the first substantive scene in the movie, it lacks urgency and feels a bit too early to be trying to pull that one on us.
So then it flashes back - through the boy's speach about being manly - to Japan in 1996 and this boy apparently grown up and working in a convenience store. Here it is established that he still lives with his mum and is taking care of his sister's child after she left the baby and disappeared one day. It is a jarring shift from the dark and grimy prison, played mostly for comedy in a very bright and lighthearted style. This is something of an overarching problem in the movie, as the direction seems more 70s British Sitcom than Hollywood. Sure, there are a number of nice flourishes, but the directing adds a levity to the story which often isn't appropriate and sets a tone that, when coupled with the dark and action-packed plot, creates a fair amount of tonal dissonance, especially as the film advances.
Soon, this little fella comes into play:
This symbol is saturated throughout the story, the mystery hook. When this symbol keeps turning up in the places of mysterious events, it is revealed it is connected to a shadowy cult. Lead by a man known only as "Friend", this cult is growing rapdily, and quickly gaining influence and becoming a menace. For our protagonist, Kenji, this symbol and the events that are linked to the cult have an eerily personal significance: when he was young, he and his friends designed the symbol and plotted the course of destruction as a game. Now, it seems, someone is taking their youthful games and turning them into a deadly reality. And so it is revealed that the enigmatic friend must be one of the people who was part of young Kenji's friend group.
Considering my adoration for the source material, it might be considered odd to complain that there is too much of the manga in here. The Lord of the Rings movies took on a previously thought unfilmable story, and turned it into a film - adapting rather than recreating - and this is the key to it's success. 20th Century Boys, however, gets snarled up in the complex and winding structure of the story that flowed out oh so well in comic. It decides to espouse the Hollywood three act structure, stay true to the original, and the result is clumsy and convoluted. We get flashbacks by the bucket-full, flashbacks within flashbacks and both the plot and central character arc seem to meander indecisively forward. En media res is horribly abused in this film, whilst it flowed smoothly in the manga. It also seemed that to try and be so faithful to the story within the confines of a trilogy was way too ambitious.
When trying to evaluate performances from a different culture, it can be difficult. Different societies have different norms when it comes to displays of emotion. Nonetheless, I found the cast was more or less convincing. Karasawa felt maybe a little too hapless and comedic for most of the movie, but carried the later serious scenes with enough to make him seem like the transformed Kenji. Really, his was the performance that whole film rested on; for this part of the story, 20th Century Boys has the spotlight stuck firmly upon him.
This film trilogy is purportedly the most expensive Japanese cinematic undertaking ever. And although they decide to preserve the story's structure, espousing the more adviseable Hollywood structure, they decide to ape Hollywood habit of gratuity over subtlety. Some of the most powerful moments of the story are played out here with a frankly silly level of big budgetry. Emmerich would be proud. Urasawa's storytelling and art was always at it's strongest when he was making use of subtlety, and the film suffers for ignoring this.
20th Century Boys is probably an entertaing story to the patient casual viewer. It's complex and convoluted structure, coupled with it's propensity to be more cartoonish, mean that most people are unlikely to be won over. The story is still there, there's still a great story here - but read the manga. Let's hope the sequels can change my mind.