SJ Reads: 20th Century Boys

 

 

20thcentury

 

I want to continue the theme this month of stuff I like, because it’s still my bday month, and I said so.

Take the kid-gang aspects of It or Stand by Me and plunk them in Japan. Add some flashbacks and time jumps and a cult. Throw in germ warfare, an attempt at killer robots, some maybe-ressurections, and possible aliens (though not really).

My friends (heh), if you haven’t read 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, oh my gawd you are missing out.

This is probably tied for my favorite manga, definitely my favorite non-shojo manga. While so many in the form tangent and use subplots that feel like they’re buying time, this story makes everything work for it.

Disclaimer: I still have the last 2 end-cap volumes (titled 21st Century Boys), but because I don’t care about spoilers, I know the full ending, and I’m satisfied with it. I don’t know that any ending could match the immense build-up, but in this case I’m pretty at peace.

Kenji and his friends are pre-teens in 1969 Japan, and they spend a summer hiding out in their secret fort, avoiding bullies, dreaming about going to the World Expo, and making up stories about how they’d save the world from ultimate evil.

Jump to when the characters are in their 30s-40s, and they all have grown up, have typical jobs, and are somewhat dissatisfied with their lives. Kenji is running his father’s store with his mom and taking care of his niece, Kanna, after his sister dumps her off one night.

Then one of the old gang commits suicide. But does he?

And suddenly there is this person called Friend making waves and using the symbol that Kenji’s crew adopted as kids…and using their stories to slowly take over the world.

The first major arc deals with trying to figure out who is Friend, leading to a showdown on New Year’s Eve, 1999.

Time jump again, and this time Kanna is the lead, trying to continue on her uncle’s work while dealing with the appearance of strange abilities.

It’s impossible to convey in a post like this how cool this series is. For one, this is one of the rare ensemble pieces that I’ve read that really treats nearly all of the cast as equals. They all get screentime in some form. There are some bold, bold choices (Kenji, himself, disappears for a majority of the title, so a lot of what you’re learning about him is through flashbacks and people’s opinions and memories). The characters are just so good. Kanna embodies the teen girl in the apocalypse without making you want to hate her. The character of Otcho is so unbelievably badass I really want a spinoff with him. Even the typical “weaker” members like Yoshitsune get to do some awesome things. Characters that you think are just written off in the beginning show up again, you gain new insight through new additions…this is just SO well thought out I can’t stand it. Plus, the constant time-jumping back and forth between eras and past and present mean that a lot is constantly revealed and explained, so you’re never quite banking on one big reveal moment. It’s a pretty savvy move, and works well, especially in the medium.

While the way the world is conquered is unlikely to happen (and a lot is made of that, because hi, this is a group of people using the plans of 10-year-olds), it’s really fascinating to watch the motivation behind people in the Friends, and the reactions of typical citizens. I feel like the books get this so very, incredibly right in a lot of ways. And even if it’s not possible, it seems believable in this world.

For me, this does what titles like Deathnote don’t do: it keeps my attention and makes me really care about the people involved, as well as being a cool idea. You get your themes and rants and posturing, but it’s not so incredibly heavy-handed.

The only real down point to this series is that at times the pacing feels slow. I nearly put it down early on, but I’m here to tell you KEEP GOING. What really makes this sing is that all the little things that you think are slowing things down fit into important plot points later on. So it’s not necessarily a pacing problem as it is that there’s just so much IN this series.

This is also a title that really conveys the feeling of Japan at different points in time for me. I love the use of western music influencing Kenji throughout the whole thing. There’s one specific sequence where the boys are daydreaming about how they’ll be greeted at the UN for saving the world, and all you can see is their legs…if you’re familiar with the T-Rex song the series takes its title from, you can just hear it thrumming in rhythm to the panels. And then when this sequence is played out for real, the carpet is yanked out from under you in the best way. I still don’t know if it was a really sly, purposeful move or if it’s serendipity, but the first few lines of the song tell you a lot. And that’s all I’ll say.

The greatest thing for me is, though, that this is really a title about saving the world on your own terms. This isn’t more zombie fighting or a military-based fight series. These people (outside of Otcho) aren’t really action heroes, and if they are that doesn’t necessarily mean they get anywhere with those skills past a certain point. Kenji, himself, is banking on the power of his guitar and eventually finding an audience to save the world. And somehow, it all comes together.

I never would have believed this could work in a million years. I was totally proven wrong. Read this one. Trust me. It’s amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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