Eye For Film >> Movies >> 20th Century Boys: The Complete Saga (2010) Film Review
Based on Urasawa Naoki's acclaimed 24-volume manga of the same name (1999-2007), conceived as a sprawling trilogy (with the first two films shot simultaneously), unfolding over five decades across the globe with 300 speaking roles, and commanding an unprecedented budget of six billion yen for its three parts (each of which culminates in a world-changing disaster), Tsutsumi Yukihiko's live-action 20th Century Boys is epic on a scale rarely seen even in the nation where Godzilla and Tetsujin-28 (aka Gigantor) have frequently been shown running destructive riot as avatars of the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the Second World War to such a costly end. Incidentally, both these fictive behemoths are openly acknowledged as influences on the trilogy.
Size, however, isn't everything – and 20th Centruy Boys is far more concerned with history, origins and all the small beginnings that lead up to such monumental mayhem. For while Tsutsumi's ambitiously complex narrative drives ever forward towards a nightmarish SF future, it also, like the similarly manga-based stories of Miike Takashi's Ichi The Killer (2001), Park Chan-wook's Oldboy (2003) and Inoue Yasuo's Neighbor No. 13 (2005), heads back to the old school, rooting the cause of all its present and future problems in the titular boys' formative years as fellow school pupils, when friendships were forged, dreams were shared, and everyday bullying left some scars that would not easily heal.
Indeed, although the trilogy's plot will find its shape and momentum in mystery, this is essentially a coming-of-age tale, as an ensemble of adults is shown gradually taking responsibility for its own childish follies even as it faces a masked villain that we suspect at different times could be any one of them. In keeping with the influence on Urasawa of Stephen King's rites-of-passage stories The Body (filmed as Stand By Me) and It, here the boys' past is as sinister and mysterious as it is cosily reassuring. There is nostalgia in the recreation and endless reexamination of these characters' utterly banal yet crucially significant experiences in the late Sixties and early Seventies – but it is a nostalgia that comes with a decided double edge.
The reluctant hero of 20th Century Boys – Chapter 1: Beginning Of The End is Endo Kenji (Karasawa Toshiaki), who as a boy believed that rock music would change the world, but is now, in 1997, a convenience store clerk in his late thirties who has long since given up being lead singer/guitarist in a band so that he can bring up Kanna, the infant daughter of his missing sister Kiriko (Kuroki Hitomi).
As a strange, deadly virus from Africa claims its first victim in Tokyo (a robotics student significantly named Kaneda Shotaro after the 'boy detective' from Testsujin-28), Kenji realises that the key prophecies and symbol of an emerging doomsday cult have been appropriated wholesale from a comicbook-inspired scenario that he and his childhood friends had first devised together way back in 1969 – a scenario in which an evil villain conquers the world, unleashing a giant robot armed with a virus weapon onto Tokyo on 31st December 2000. Racing against the clock, Kenji reunites with his former schoolmates to unmask the cult's mysterious leader 'Friend', and to stop the very end of mankind.
20th Century Boys – Chapter 2: The Last Hope switches its focus from Kenji to the now-teenaged Kanna (Taira Airi) in a 2015 that is still in the shadow of the events that have become known as Bloody New Year's Eve. Now hoping to realise a New Book of Prophecies that he wrote himself as a child, the reclusive Friend manoeuvres himself to become a new God – half populist Kennedy, half born-again Christ - in a fallen world of his own creation. Investigations conducted by Kanna and her ditzy friend Koizumi (Kinami Haruke) into Friend Land, the cult's theme park/brainwashing centre, only take them further into a 'virtual 1971' as well as Kanna's own past. Meanwhile the resistance movement, comprising Friend's former schoolmates, can never be sure whether its efforts are preventing, or merely advancing, the master plan of the messianic mass murderer.
There are touches of J-horror here, not just in the film's creepy 1969 prologue (with shades of Death Note), but also in the way that abandoned hospitals and haunted classrooms are used as key locations, and in one particularly unsettling scene that features a grotesquely incongruous adult head on a little boy's shoulders. Still, this is the silliest of the three instalments, with Koizumi's shifting expression of cheerily confused incredulity serving to match and modulate that of the viewer.
Set in a dystopian 2017 where Friend has become President of the World and refashioned a walled-in Tokyo to resemble the Shinjuku ward of his childhood, 20th Century Boys – Final Chapter: Our Flag is all about tying up the trilogy's many loose narrative threads.
There is some action here, as Kenji's ageing ragbag of friends makes yet another last-ditch attempt to save humankind from yet more catastrophe and faces a new improved robot of mass destruction. But the emphasis here is far more on telling than showing, with every major character, and seemingly countless half-forgotten minor characters, lining up one after the other to offer a mosaic of back story and exposition. It is a mad-dash bid to make sense of every last detail of the story that has preceded – apart, that is, from Kanna's paranormal powers, which defy all rational explanation – but it also drains away much of the film's dramatic impact.
Tsutsumi pieces together his narrative from a Rashomon-esque collision of multiple perspectives, but dazzles us with so many balls in the air, so many twists and turns, that there is not enough room left for his characters to develop as believable, interesting people, as opposed to comicbook archetypes. No doubt this is less of a problem for those already invested in Urasawa's manga – but for the uninitiated, there is too much information to absorb here, and not enough emotional engagement to make the effort worthwhile. Some all-out spectacle might have offered some compensation, but alas the story demands set-pieces that are understated and decidedly uncool (except for those whose development is severely arrested), and that is precisely what Tsutsumi delivers, succeeding in never allowing his monsters to be too monstrous, while failing somewhat in presenting their human side.
By the end, the only thing that will still be keeping many viewers gripped is the question of Friend's identity – a question whose answer is deferred not only till the trilogy closer, but till a 15-minute coda that follows its final credits roll. This solution certainly comes as a surprise, but perhaps most surprising of all is just how satisfying, both intellectually and emotionally, it proves to be after so many hours – decades even, in narrative terms - of obfuscation and digression.
Here we are taken back once again to several primal scenes from Kenji's childhood, but shown them, at last and for the first time, through the clear-seeing eyes of his now adult self. The potential mawkishness of any atonement or redemption to be found in this final sequence is rather brilliantly offset by our carefully managed awareness that reality is not in fact like this. It is an ending so very good that you will only wish the rest of the trilogy had not taken so very long to get there.
There is little in these films, with their desultory approach to chronology, their obsession with Aum Shirikyo-like doomsday cults, and their belief that a punkish rebelliousness can save the world, that has not also been done in Sono Shion's Love Exposure (2008) and Nakamura Yoshihiro's Fish Story (2009), which are both shorter (despite the near four-hour duration of the former) and better. Nonetheless, the enormous scale and scope of Tsutsumu's quixotic ambitions bring their own rewards, while unquestionably pushing the boundaries of what is possible in Japanese cinema.Reviewed on: 31 May 2010