Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - 20th Century Boys

by Jason Thompson, Mar 28th 2013

Episode CXLIII: 20th Century Boys

"Are we, today, the kind of adults we dreamed of becoming back then? Or would our childhood selves just look at us now and laugh?"

Life has passed Kenji Endô by. 36 years old, he lives with his mother and works at the family store. Unmarried, unskilled, his only real mission in life is taking care of his infant niece Kanna, who his older sister left with the family a few months ago before disappearing. Every day he sees his old friends, the ones like him who never left town or moved away. But while they're all having kids, starting businesses, getting married or getting married a second time, he's stuck in a rut, taking care of a baby and dreaming about the past when he used to play guitar. Where would he be today if his rock band had made it big? "I dreamed I'd save the world. I swore I'd never sing karaoke…" Kenji thinks when he's out drinking and singing karaoke with his school buddies. "This is okay, really. My life's okay like this…"

Kenji's best friends are the same gang he used to hang out with in elementary school: Keroyon, Yoshitstune, Otcho, Maruo, "Donkey" and some other kids on the fringe. Back when they were about nine years old, in 1969, they built a grass fort in an empty lot, and spent their summers there reading manga, eating candy from the corner store, and listening to rock and roll. They stole sexy movie posters for the pink eiga that played in the local movie house, fought bullies, told ghost stories and dared each other to sneak into haunted houses at night. They also played make-believe, writing down stories of a future when they would save the world from giant robots and evil villains. Kenji was the best at coming up with stories, which he wrote down in "The Book of Prophecy." Otcho came up with the symbol of their group, an eye within a hand within an eye.

Nearly 30 years later,in 1997, Kenji gets a short message from "Donkey," now a schoolteacher, with the eye-in-hand symbol. "Remember this? Let's meet up sometime, there's something I want to tell you about," Donkey writes. But before they can talk in person, Donkey dies mysteriously, an apparent suicide. Then Kenji starts noticing the eye-in-hand symbol everywhere: it's the insignia of a new group, the Friends. Something like a religious cult, the Friends are spreading rapidly, propelled by Friend, their charismatic, mysterious leader. Disturbingly, their imagery and rituals are taken straight from the "Book of Prophecy". More disturbingly, everyone who investigates them too closely dies, often by hemorrhaging blood from their entire body, as if affected by some horrible disease. (When the Friends kill someone, they say they've been "rejected," Viz's translation of the Japanese verb you use when someone's not your friend anymore, which could also be translated as "banished". Good thing they didn't translate it as "defriended.") As Kenji starts to dig deeper, he realizes the truth: someone has taken their childhood stories and is turning them into reality. Who is the faceless man named "Friend"? What is his goal? And can Kenji, and his other childhood buddies, stop the Book of Prophecy from coming true?

One of the many super-long manga series by Naoku Urasawa, whose stories just keep getting crazier and denser, 20th Century Boys is an epic saga of nostalgia, middle age, rock n' roll, and a struggle against an evil conspiracy. This is an intricate, 20-volume seinen manga (22 volumes if you count the sequel, 21st Century Boys, which you should because it's essential to the plot and who knows why it even has a separate title) that jumps between hundreds of characters and five main time periods: 1969, 1997, 2000, 2014 and 2017. The manga was such a hit it was adapted into three live-action movies, which I haven't seen yet. Although the core target audience of 20th Century Boys in Big Comic Spirits is presumably now in their 50s—the same age as Kenji and his classmates—it snagged audiences of all ages with its great premise, its great storytelling and the mystery of Friend. Almost every incident in Kenji's childhood turns out to be important; even the most trivial details echo back; I'd like to see how many notebooks full of notes Urasawa filled writing it. I've said this before about other manga: it's going to be impossible for me to write about it without some spoilers, so if you really want the full twisty experience, stop reading this now. Until the last two paragraphs, I'll try not to spoil more than they say on the back cover text.

20th Century Boys starts as a mystery-thriller manga and becomes a manga about rebels fighting a futuristic dystopia. By the time Kenji discovers the existence of the Friends, they are already on the threshold of their evil masterplan: to fake a massive terrorist attack on New Year's Eve 2000 (with giant robots spewing deadly viral bioweapons!!) and then take credit for stopping it, making Friend the heroic savior of the world. There's no references to the September 11th terrorist attacks, as 20th Century Boys started in 1999 (Urasawa worked out all his America-vs-terrorists ideas in the not-as-good Pluto instead); instead, the biggest inspiration for the Friends is probably Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways. (You'd think the world governments would be a little suspicious that the Friend turn out to have exactly the right vaccine to cure the deadly virus, but let's skip that detail.) Like Ozymandias in Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Friends use a manufactured, imaginary enemy, a villain right out of a comic book, to get the people of Earth united on one side: their side. The events of "Bloody New Year's Eve" turn the Friends from a mere cult to the most powerful organization in the world. The manga jumps forward to the year 2014, and the focus shifts to a new hero: Kenji's now-teenage niece, Kanna, a rebel who takes on her uncle's mission of getting the truth out and stopping the Friends at any cost. But Bloody New Year's Eve is only the first stage in Friend's plans…

Urasawa steers this story all over the map but always brings it back on track. Characters change as they get older, as we follow the main characters from childhood to old age. (Urasawa is good at drawing faces, so you can always tell who's who no matter how old they are.) The Friends' masterplan is outrageous, but that's exactly the point. ("It's like something a child would come up with…because that's exactly what it is…" one character says.) We're held spellbound, trying to figure out how the Friends can make this over-the-top story into a reality, and how Urasawa can make this all work together as a manga. Twisted villains, giant robots, a nihilistic plan for total destruction—can these things exist in the same reality as rundown convenience stores and college radio stations? At times the plot has fun with the unreality of it all, as when the scientist who designs the robot complains that it's physically impossible to build a bipedal robot 50 feet tall like the one in Friend's childhood fantasies. (They figure out a workaround, though.) We're also on the edge of our seats trying to figure out how a few middle-aged men (and one woman, Yukiji) can stop an enormous conspiracy. But if the yesterday's childhood toys are today's realities, maybe anything is possible. As Kenji gradually recalls his half-forgotten childhood memories, trying to figure out who is Friend, and what will happen next, he realizes that the answer to everything lies in those memories of yesteryear…

20th Century Boys is the manga equivalent of a Stephen King novel, pretty openly, since the characters even talk about King at one point ("His novels are really long, aren't they?"). Several of King's novels—It, Dreamcatcher, Stand By Me—are about a group of childhood friends who reunite as adults to deal with leftover issues from their childhood manifested in monstrous form. Compared to King, who never glosses over the dark side of childhood, 20th Century Boys doesn't have much sex or extreme violence (at least not physical violence), but like King, it has a strong focus on pop culture from the '60s and '70s. Young Kenji and his friends are obsessed with current events (the Woodstock music festival, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the 1970 Osaka World's Fair) with manga (Garon, Wonder 3, Super Jetter), with Western rock music. The manga even gets its name from the T. Rex song 20th Century Boy (which in fact is pretty rockin').

Part of this pop culture overload is just to establish the time period, part of it is fanservice for the middle-aged fanboys, and perhaps part of it is a commentary on the power of pop culture (media, art, whatever you call it). It's a theme that Urasawa would return to in his next manga, Billy Bat. For Kenji, the most important thing is rock n' roll, the dream he chased for so long before giving up and going back to the family liquor store. His impromptu guitar performances inspire his niece Kanna, who grows up to decorate her room '60s style with LPs, psychedelic prints and pictures of John Lennon. "'Cuz the '60s were rock 'n' roll! Uncle Kenji told me!" It's surely no accident that one of the few ways we see Friend recruiting new cult members is by free rock concerts of terrible pop music and enka, totally unlike Kenji's ROCKIN' TO SAVE HUMANITY.I can't help but think this is all a bit cheesy ("Hey, man, is that freedom rock?! Well, turn it up, man!!"), particularly when Kenji's lyrics sound more like Soichi Negishi than Johannes Krauser II ("The sun's gone down, and the smell of curry/is coming from somebody's kitchen somewhere./How long, oh how long/do I have to walk 'til I reach home…"). ("Adding to my fury was the musical plot device. I cannot describe how jarring this terrible music is," wrote one reviewer of the movie.) In typical manga style, sometimes it's hard to tell if Urasawa is being serious or ironic about ALL THIS ROCKIN', and at other times he casts a darker light on this nostalgia-obsession. One of the best moments in the story is when we see the "Friend museum," a recreation of the Friend's childhood home preserved by his followers: it's an obsessive collector's dream, filled with manga and robot toys, 1970 frozen in time. Even later, when Friend takes over, he reconstructs Tokyo the way it appeared in the early 1970s, a bunch of rowhouses and shoddy, early industrial buildings, with a tiny black-and-white CRT television for every family. In their own ways, both Kenji and Friend are trying to recreate the past. History repeats itself.

The core mystery of this manga is: who is Friend? We don't get the answer until the very ending. When we start to see the inner workings of Friend's organization, I started to wonder if perhaps Friend Himself was just an artificial creation: nothing more than a faceless figurehead, like a Teru teru Bozu doll, an emptiness at the center of a seductively compelling childhood dream. Of course, Kenji was the one who had the dream in the first place, so from another angle, the whole Friend cult is like Kenji's ego trip, a narcissistic vindication of his childhood fantasies. Is Friend doing it all as a twisted tribute to Kenji, making himself into the Joker so Kenji can be his Batman? Friend seems like the villain, but should Kenji actually thank Friend for bringing his fantasies to life? At one point I even wondered if Kenji was Friend. What if it was all a split-personality Fight Club thing, where the tired convenience store clerk lives out a second existence as a megalomaniacal cult leader, becoming both hero and villain? (Spoiler: it's not.) For that matter, how does Friend get his followers? Charismatic cults are a real thing, but how do you get a cult of personality if you have no name and no backstory, and people can't even see your face? Although this is obviously just me being a backseat driver and suggesting rewrites to the story under the cover of criticism, it's too bad we don't ever really get inside the psyche of any of the people who join the cult of Friend. They're all more or less faceless crazy minions. As one character finally says 2/3rds of the way through the story, "Who would take anything he says seriously, anyway? The guy's got his head wrapped in a cloth, for crying out loud."

SPOILERS: The obvious solve-all answer to "how does Friend get his followers?" is "psychic powers." There's a subplot about psychic powers throughout the story, including many references to Uri Geller and his famous spoon-bending trick (another bit of early-'70s pop culture). But despite many teases that it might turn into something bigger, the ESP angle ultimately turns out to be a red herring. Satisfying as a climactic psychic battle or giant-robot throwdown might have been, 20th Century Boys never becomes a science fiction manga; evidently that angle didn't interest Urasawa or his core readers. Like the super-simple designs for the giant robot and the flying saucers, the idea of psychic powers in 20th Century Boys is just an icon for the idea of psychic powers, not something that needs to be fleshed out. What ultimately matters is not how Friend does what he does, but why; the character relationships. The characters get closer and closer to this mystery, eventually literally traveling back to 1970 through a virtual-reality/time-travel device. Kenji and Friend have unresolved business from childhood between them. And when that business is resolved, Friend will move on to the final stage. As one character puts it: "When a kid who gets all the toys he ever wanted, just like that, reaches the point when there's nothing left in the world that he wants…what does that kid do? Our friend is about to put his toy chest away." "Are you saying he's going to tidy up? Put away the whole planet…?"

As a final note, the question of Friend's identity reminds me of an old urban legend about another masked villain, the Green Goblin in Spider-Man. According to the rumor (which was debunked in 2009 by Steve Ditko, but it's still a good story), when the Green Goblin, the mysterious villain with a grudge against Spider-Man, was first unmasked, Stan Lee wanted him to be an important character with a dramatic connection to Spider-Man's backstory. Steve Ditko, on the other hand, wanted him to be a random person the reader had never seen before, apparently to make an existentialist point about that some mysteries are never solved, that there are some forgotten people whose stories you'll never know. The true identity of Friend is somewhere in between Stan Lee's Green Goblin and Steve Ditko's Green Goblin. You could have written a whole different manga from Friend's perspective. Maybe Urasawa will one day.
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