'Boys' reflects society in funhouse mirror


POSTED: Friday, April 03, 2009

Theoretically, given decent sales and an imagination that never runs dry, I suppose that a manga series, like episodic television, could run forever. This seemed to be the case with Naoki Urasawa's “;20th Century Boys”; title, a kind of science-fiction mystery that plays hob with pop culture, and which ran for hundreds of chapters. I've been aware of the work by reputation—it has won all sorts of awards—but never had a couple of months on a desert island to read it.





        Part One: ;*;*;*; 1/2

Part Two: ;*;*; 1/2




Movies to the rescue! Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi has tackled Urasawa's gigantic, complex narrative and is shoehorning it into three parts. The first two are on hand and will be presented at HIFF's 12th Annual Spring Showcase. Tsutsumi certainly has his work cut out for him, much like Peter Jackson with “;Lord of the Rings”; and Zack Snyder with “;Watchmen”;: The original works have legions of fanboys acutely sensitive to any deviation from their treasured story.

Oh yeah, the story. It's pretty much a kind of mystery played out in science fiction, not the kind of sci-fi that delights in rocket ships—although the kids in the movie like that stuff—but in the social-mirror variety, in which society is held up to a funhouse mirror.

The most central of the characters is Kenji, who once played at being a rock star and now is a salaryman at a convenience store. His sister has vanished, leaving a baby behind. Every once in a while, he notices in the paper that viruses are striking people dead, and also that a cult called “;Friendship Party”; is gathering momentum.

At a class reunion, he's joined by childhood friends, and they compare notes. They were all close pals as kids and, being fixated on cheap sci-fi and cartoon heroes, invented wild and wacky ways to save the world. But one of their number has committed suicide, and as they talk about it, they discover that the Friendship Party is following their childhood games to the letter—even to deadly conclusions. How can this be?

This realization pretty much sets off the epic and hair-raising plot. The whats aren't as important here as the what-ifs. Both the original manga and the film adaptations have at their heart the baggage of childhood carried into adulthood, how simple mistakes can backfire years later, and of the consequences of friendship, good and bad.

Along the way, the story also meditates on the morality of religion and intolerance, and to its credit, applies the inherent veneer of fascism to pop culture, the media, superheroes and rock 'n' roll.

It's all told with high style and even a disarming sense of humor amid the often scary goings-on.

The second part suffers from typical second-act doldrums, being talkier and busier with less effect than the first, although it sets us up nicely for the third part, now in production.

“;20th Century Boys”; (the title comes from the T.Rex song also used as the theme in “;The Truman Show”;) is one of the most expansive productions ever attempted in Japan and represents something of a risk for the investors. Although it has done well there, the overseas market is still a question mark.

This one-person segment of the overseas market enjoyed it immensely. And yes, you can't have a manga without a giant robot showing up sooner or later.