“Kenji, let’s play.”
Actions have consequences. That is the message put forward in many of manga creator Naoki Urasawa’s work. In Monster (which I would have reviewed if I did TV series), Dr Kenzo Tenma suffers the consequences of saving Johan Liebert’s life. In Billy Bat, Kevin Yamagata also suffers when he tries to discover the history of the character he’s been drawing. These characters, whether intentionally or not, set forth a series of events far beyond their control, through only single, small actions.
Urasawa’s sci-fi epic 20th Century Boys draws on similar themes, and follows Kenji Endo, a man in his mid-thirties who works in a supermarket with his mother, looking after the daughter his sister left behind. One day, while sorting out a delivery for robotics professor Shikishima, who has gone missing, he finds scrawled on the wall, a strange symbol, and he learns Shikishima might have been a member of a cult. While attending a school reunion, his friends discuss this cult, led by the enigmatic Tomodachi (“Friend”) and that the symbol used by it is the same as the one their gang had when they were kids.
They remember a story they had written – a series of cataclysmic events orchestrated by the Evil Organisation, culminating in a large-scale terrorist attack at the end of the century. The gang deduce that someone from their past is Tomodachi, but cannot figure out who. As Tomodachi and his cult create more chaos, Kenji and his friends revisit the past to figure out who this man is, if they don’t get framed for his terrorist attacks in the process.
There’s a lot of story here. Urasawa’s comic contains over 260 chapters, which is a lot to divide into three films. This first of the trilogy, subtitled The Beginning of the End, has to do a lot of work in establishing characters (in Kenji’s group alone there are seven people, and double that when we have to get to know their flashback selves, add in a host of villains and a ton of supporting roles, and you get the picture), but it actually does a pretty decent job of keeping the audience up-to-date. The big risk in these epic undertakings is that the audience is likely to get confused or overwhelmed. The Beginning of the End has an even harder job to do because it keeps jumping through time. Then it will split off into another story, and yes everything does tie together into the larger narrative, it can be a bit tough to keep up. This film, and probably the rest of the film, is definitely the type to benefit from multiple viewings.
With that in mind, by the time it ends, it’s actually quite impressive just how many characters we can describe. Otcho (Etushi Toyokawa), is a loyal friend and bad-ass with a tragic past, Yoshitsune (Teruyuki Kagawa) is weedy and weak, but stands for what’s right, Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa) is headstrong and stubborn, but deeply caring. Some of them don’t get much screen time – a couple of other members like Kuranosuke Sasaki’s Fukubei and Takashi Ukaji’s Mon-chan are barely in this but we still get a vague sense of who they are even in their limited screen time. The cast is all pretty good, some are even pretty great (Whoever voices Tomodachi has such a surprisingly strong presence despite having this piece of cloth, or that Ninja Hattori-kun mask over his face for the whole film). But at the end of the day the focus is on Kenji, who is immensely likeable as a lead, and becomes more so as the stakes are raised and he finds himself deeper and deeper into a mess he can’t control, but he ultimately created. He’s an affable fool who grows into a selfless hero – doing everything in his power to save the city that blames him for Tomodachi’s crimes, all the while looking after his sister’s infant daughter. Kenji is a character whose ties to the past have defined him, and while he hasn’t entirely grown up, his distinction from Tomodachi, who never seemed to grow past the Book of Prophecies time in his life, is what makes the two of them such solidly contrasting characters.
Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi really puts a lot of effort into making this look and feel like the manga, from the set design to the costumes. It’s nothing too weird or wacky, but it’s subtly there, reminding us that this isn’t quite our reality. Where it also tries to mimic the manga is in how they told the story. It’s actually pretty strange how easy it is to break the film down into chapters, like episodes on TV. Urawasa’s sharp writing and spiderweb plotting is mostly done justice here, and Kenji is the perfect hapless idiot to guide us through the world of 20th Century Boys. Tsutsumi relies just a little bit too much on the reusing of images whenever a character remembers something, so it can sometimes feel like he doesn’t trust the audience enough to remember a vital piece of information, but really that’s a minor gripe.
The larger issues come, despite what I just said, when it tries to mimic its source material too much. While a narrative that takes it time to unfold over many issues can work, it’s less easy to do so in film. So while sometimes it can feel like the story takes a left turn out of nowhere (random scene in Thailand! A cop who dies three minutes after his big scene!), it all more or less fits nicely into a larger narrative … eventually. It is easy to see how it can turn off a more casual viewer, and it can get a bit baffling at times. For example, the movie is bookeneded by these scenes of a manga artist in a boat prison in the year 2015, talking to a guy who won’t be revealed until the next film comes out, and none of it plays any role whatsoever in the 150 minutes present here. Again, this works a lot better if you’re more familiar with the material, or if you’re watching the whole trilogy for a second time.
Utilising its elements of childhood nostalgia and how your actions define your future, mixed in with both a strong mystery element and an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario, it’s easy to get drawn in. Maybe you won’t even realise its running time of two and a half hours. Building momentum to a pretty exciting climax, you’re more than likely to want to stick around for the rest of the film, and the two others to follow.
Verdict: At its worst, 20th Century Boys is overly complicated, with a cast too numerous to count, but at its best it is a tense mystery, exciting sci-fi, with a hint of nostalgia.
20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End
Also known as: 20世紀少年: 第1章 終わりの始まり, (20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga)
Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Writer: Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Naoki Urasawa, Yusuke Watanabe
Toshiaki Karasawa – Kenji Endo
Etsushi Toyokawa – Otcho
Takako Tokiwa – Yukiji
Teruyuki Kagawa – Yoshitsune
Hidehiko Ishizuka – Maruo
Takashi Ukaji – Mon-chan
Hiroyuki Miyasako – Keroyon
Katsuhisa Namase – Donkey
Fumiyo Kohinata – Yamane
Kuranosuke Sasaki – Fukubei
Shirô Sano – Yanbo and Mabo
Mirai Moriyama – Comic Artist
Kanji Tsuda – Moroboshi
Arata Iura – Masao Tamura
Airi Taira – Kanna Endô
Jun Nishiyama – Young Kenji
Ryusei Sawahata – Young Otcho
Tamaki Matsumoto – Young Yukiji
Fumiya Ogura – Young Yoshitsune
Ichiya Anzai – Young Maruo
Katsuto Yoshii – Young Donkey
Taichi Yano – Young Mon-chan
Takuya Moriyama – Young Keroyon
Kiyotaka Yamada – Young Yanbo and Mabo
Muneyoshi Abiko – Young Yamane
Riku Uehara – Young Fukubei