Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 5th 2011
20th Century Boys
As a boy, Kenji Endo grew up in idyllic 1960's and 70's Japan, surrounded by faithful, good-spirited friends. But there were outcasts too, like Fukube, who—despite his intelligence and privilege, or maybe because of it—never quite fit in with Kenji's circle. All Fukube ever wanted was to be someone's Friend ... and when things finally started going his way, so began an apocalyptic, decades-spanning chain of events. The latest link in this chain, in the year 2015, is the staged death and resurrection of the "Friend," elevating him to godlike status. Now, three years later, the "Friendship Era" has transformed Tokyo into an authoritarian, walled-off city resembling the suburbs of Kenji and Fukube's childhood. Otcho, one of Kenji's former childhood friends, is one of the few survivors still fighting this madness—and his only help is a pair of siblings totally confused by the world around them.
If readers of 20th Century Boys have been taken on a nerve-wracking rollercoaster ride, trying to figure out the villain's motives in his plot for world domination, just imagine how Naoki Urasawa must have felt, holding back the final puzzle piece until this exact moment.
It's become almost a running joke now, how each new installment of the series is declared "the most important one yet!" and full of "dramatic revelations that will change the storyline forever!" Volume 16, however, is one that actually lives up to the hype, definitively answering dozens of unanswered questions. And it does so with one simple device: telling the villain's side of the story.
The first six chapters, a flashback into Fukube's childhood, is one of Urasawa's grand storytelling accomplishments (which says a lot for a guy whose entire oeuvre is full of accomplishments). From its ambitious first-person opening—where every panel for 18 pages is framed from Fukube's viewpoint—to the life-or-death finish that slides right into the present day, this is the story arc that quite literally explains everything. Or at least, everything related to the series' "retro" timeframe: incomplete plot points like "what Donkey saw in the classroom,""the haunted house on Hanging Hill," and "the lie of 1971" all make sense now as part of Fukube's plan. And then, on another level, this flashback also works as an in-depth character study: Fukube is not just some maniacal, cackling fiend, but a young boy like anyone else, whose combination of above-average intelligence and social awkwardness unfortunately led him down the path of becoming the most diabolical leader the world has ever known.
After this brilliant tying-up of loose ends, it's something of a disappointment to have to jump back into the post-2015 timeframe. A new story arc is born, one where the Friend has effectively taken over the world—and with this three-year time leap, Urasawa seems to have relapsed into some bad old habits. He glosses over in-between details, expecting readers to blindly accept that the virus outbreak has now led to this post-apocalyptic retro-Tokyo, and doesn't even account for any of the major characters save for Otcho. He sets the scene well, introducing a couple of new characters and bringing some suspense into the mix, but this storyline features a lot of wishy-washy, magical hand-waving ("I'll explain it later, really!"), which is irritating to say the least.
One area where Urasawa is consistently good, however, is in the art, and he seems especially excited to be drawing multiple chapters of old suburban Tokyo—whether it be the real 60's and 70's or the Friend's artificial creation of the future. Old wooden houses, vintage furnishings, and knickknacks of the past all come to life with carefully shaded textures and attention to detail. The flashback scenes also do a great job of jogging readers' memories by including images from much earlier in the series. But masterful backgrounds are nothing without characters to occupy them, and with half the book being about the main characters' childhood days, their animated gestures and expressions make every moment shine. Which is not to say that the second half is any less effective—the Orwellian setting of Friendship-Era Tokyo evokes plenty of suspense visually, as the characters frequently move about in low lighting and cast furtive glances at each other. A number of dramatic close-ups also emphasize the characters' fear and uncertainty in this new storyline.
For all its complexity, 20th Century Boys is surprisingly plainspoken when it comes to dialogue. Young Fukube, as the protagonist of the flashback chapters, doesn't mince words when it comes to expressing his roiling, insecure emotions. The odd tic of repeating certain lines ("It didn't work. It didn't work. It didn't work.") also adds to his idiosyncratic personality. The characters in the new arc also have distinct speaking patterns that reflect their traits: older sister Sanae with her wordy intellectualism, naïve but inquisitive younger brother Tatsuo, and of course, tough-talking, world-weary Otcho. A straightforward translation makes every line of dialogue come through clearly, as well as getting the cultural references right. As an added point of authenticity, textual elements like storefront signs and book titles are kept in Japanese, with English translations added as footnotes in between panels. In a story where "Japan's good old days" are a key element, every historically accurate detail counts.
With almost every aspect of 20th Century Boys being so consistently good, it's hard to tell at times when something is "super-good." But the six chapters that cover Fukube's childhood memories set a stellar example—the buildup from one plot point to the next, the complexity of the character being portrayed, and the way 120 pages end up explaining the last 15 volumes. If dramatic events like the Friend's death and resurrection are a high-powered, multicolored laser light show, then flashbacks like these are the equivalent of peeking behind the stage and seeing the incredible machinery that makes it run. The rest of the book inevitably pales in comparison (especially with a whole new set of unanswered questions popping up), but Naoki Urasawa's command of story—as well as his command of a nib pen—make even the lesser chapters worth it. Does this new arc mark the true endgame of 20th Century Boys? Who cares? Everyone's too busy enjoying the ride.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ A flashback into the villain's childhood, which revisits a number of of familiar scenes, brilliantly ties up loose ends from earlier in the series.
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