Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jan 28th 2011
20th Century Boys
During Japan's postwar economic boom, schoolboy Kenji Endo and his friends imagined a doomsday scenario fueled by the pop-culture fantasies of their childhood. In the year 2000, a grown-up Kenji lost his life trying to stop the horrors of that scenario coming true: killer viruses, giant robots, and an insidious cult figure known as "Friend" who engineered the disaster, yet convinced the world that he had saved everyone. Now, in the year 2015, Kenji's niece Kanna and his former classmates have reunited to stop the Friend and his cronies from gaining even more power ... except that he's just been shot dead. Reeling from their leader's death, the Friend organization decides to continue with his plans: release an even deadlier virus that would wipe out most of humankind. That is, unless Kanna can track down the one person who might have developed a vaccine—her mother.
Oh, if only 20th Century Boys could follow the proper formula for a science-fiction thriller! You know, the kind where the hero has this big childhood dream, then discovers the magical destiny that awaits him, and faces off against the Big Bad Boss in a dramatic, series-ending finale? Instead, the main villain goes and takes a fatal bullet to the chest before the story is even close to being finished.
That's just what Naoki Urasawa does.
With the Friend dropping out of the picture at the end of Volume 12, this is arguably the single biggest turning point in 20th Century Boys, which is also why Volume 13 is aptly subtitled "The Beginning of the End." In an instant, the storyline shifts from decades-spanning mystery (Who is the Friend? Now we know!) to countdown-clock thriller (Somebody stop this virus!)—a long-awaited development, since most readers were probably getting tired of Urasawa stringing them along with revelations about the Friend and then pulling away at the last minute. Granted, there are still many questions about how this villain managed to propel himself to power over the last 45 years—but the big overarching mystery about the Friend's identity can at least be put to rest for now.
Just because the biggest loose end has been tied up, however, doesn't mean that the series has become any less suspenseful or intricate—there are still many flashbacks and changes of scenery, all of which are essential in building a new, towering doomsday scenario. The most critical flashback is the chapter about Kanna's mother Kiriko, since that provides direction for the entire rest of the series: find Kiriko, find the vaccine, and save the world. Yet there are unrelated scenes that end up being the most memorable as they work their way into the storyline: a father and son roaming the American badlands, Kanna's classmates shooting the breeze about boyfriend troubles, even a brief look at Kenji's rock 'n' roll days. All of these are connected to the story at hand, whether it's an update on one of Kenji's former classmates, a tipoff about the new killer virus, or just some fleshing out of the characters. Some may find it improbable that everyone in the series has some deep hidden connection to the war between Kenji and the Friends, but think of it this way: there are absolutely no wasted characters or storylines, even 13 volumes in. Everything happens for a reason.
Similarly, every scene is drawn for a reason, with cinematic visuals giving power and purpose to each aspect of the story. Even when it's just a heated moment of conversation, like Kiriko's argument with Dr. Yamane during a flashback, the artwork accentuates what's going on: the characters gesture dramatically, they occupy more of the page, and the dialogue coming out of their mouths gets bigger and bolder. Then, when actual physical action takes place—like the sudden rush to rescue Kanna and her friend Kyoko in the later chapters—speedlines and tilted angles add excitement to the tension that's already there. The only times that the artwork falters is during expository scenes that have to be done out of necessity, such as the Friend committee having a dull boardroom meeting to discuss what they're doing next. Still, Urasawa's artistic fundamentals are beyond reproach, with detailed, near-photographic backgrounds and a mastery of character design that allows him to draw people of any age and any body type as required by the story.
With the series taking another dramatic turn, the dialogue continues to straddle that tricky line between compelling conversation and wild overacting. When the characters are quietly explaining things to each other, or reasoning their way to the next major revelation, the writing flows well—everyone talks naturally, striking a balance between information and emotion. But when emotion takes hold, the script takes on the character of a sci-fi melodrama, with characters yelling "What have you done?!" and raging about the importance of saving the world. It is during those moments that were are reminded this is really just a noisy action thriller, albeit a very complex one. The translation also converts all sound effects from Japanese characters into their English equivalents, but the results are not too intrusive apart from a few "loud" scenes. A couple of brief notes in the back also explain some specifics about Japanese culture—including one particularly important point about the Friend's disguised identity.
With the "Beginning of the End" now coming into play, it's clear that 20th Century Boys has not lost a step as it enters the next stage of action-packed apocalypse. It's always a challenge trying to follow up the death of a major character (Death Note was never quite the same after you-know-what happened), but this series quickly gets its momentum going again after the flashback about Kanna's mother—and once the deadly virus of 2015 starts to kick in. Some subplots seem to come out of nowhere, but eventually connect themselves to the main storyline in surprising and exciting ways, and the main characters continue to reveal dramatic truths about the past while making equally dramatic decisions about the future. We may be living in a 21st century where none of this stuff (thankfully) ever happened, but the way the story is told still makes it intensely real.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Manages to keep the momentum going with new, thrilling storylines after a major, plot-altering event.
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