Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 2nd 2012
20th Century Boys
As a boy, Kenji Endo and his friends played at being heroes and villains—but one of them took it too far, and now the "Friend" has become ruler of the world by acting out his childhood fantasies. For his final deed, the Friend plans to wipe out Earth's population with a UFO-led virus attack ... unless Kenji and his old compatriots can stop him. Kenji's niece Kanna is staging a music festival at Tokyo's World Expo Pavilion, hoping that it will lure the city's residents to a safe spot away from the attacks. Meanwhile, Kenji's old friends are bringing out a giant robot and several cases of vaccines as countermeasures against the Friend's plans. And Kenji himself, armed with only a guitar and a song of hope, will get one more chance to save the world.
Volume 22 technically marks the end of 20th Century Boys, but it isn't much of an ending. Naoki Urasawa, that master juggler of storylines, tries to sneak his way out when there's still so much up in the air. Sure, the big-name hero finally shows up at the place that matters most, important characters are reunited, and a worldwide disaster is averted. But what of all the minor characters and subplots left semi-resolved? What happens to everyone afterwards? Who was the actual villain, and what was he really trying to accomplish? It's often said that the journey is more important than the destination—but the destination should at least be a place worth arriving at.
The first half of this volume is where all the fun happens. Now that the Friend has declared his final apocalyptic wish, the series can simplify itself down to one basic idea—a race to stop the end of the world. Of course, 20th Century Boys being what it is, this means a cast of about a dozen characters all running around with different intentions: old friends trying to get past Tokyo's giant wall, another couple of guys piloting a crudely built mecha, still others waging rebellion against the Friend organization, and at the center of it all, Kanna's music festival as a metaphor for hope in a hopeless world. It's all very exhilarating—one grand accomplishment after another, the tables finally turning on the bad guys—but as the final scene draws nearer, it becomes clear that they're never going to tie everything up on time. Urasawa has fallen so in love with cliffhangers and open plot threads that coming to an actual ending has become an alien concept.
Ultimately, the last few chapters decide to go for dramatic flair, logic be damned. All the key themes from the series are revisited in a fugue of chaos: childhood flashbacks, giant robots, folksy protest songs, killer viruses, alien invaders, psychic abilities, and the triumph of good over evil. But the story also conveniently skims past obvious plot holes, like how certain characters get from Point A to Point B, or how one guy could survive in a single spot for the last three years, or how certain people are aware of events taking place elsewhere. Even as the heartwarming final scene plays out, unfinished business remains: what about the report from the one person who had the whole Friend Organization figured out? Who was the final villain in the mask? And what becomes of the remaining henchmen now that it's all over? While much of the story comes to a close, there's just as much that's still left open.
Frustrating as this may be, however, at least Urasawa makes a visual spectacle out of it. The final concert scene, held in front of thousands, is as grand as anything to come out of the entire series. And the events leading up to it are full of other eye-pleasing delights: aerial UFO combat, a giant robot launch, panicky high-speed chases across Tokyo, and a good old one-on-one face-off. Although moments like these are obviously pure fantasy, the semi-realistic art style (note the carefully shaded props and backgrounds) creates a feeling of immersion—that one is not simply reading the story, but is actually in it, in a dystopian interpretation of our own world. The diverse cast of characters and their strong facial expressions also add to that: these are not just names and faces, but real human beings whose emotions and actions could change the future. Tying these believable characters and their world together are the smooth, easy-to-follow panel layouts, where even split-second moments are drawn in detail and the story unfolds visually like a movie.
The story's natural flow is also helped in part by the dialogue, where the characters often say just enough to move the story forward, but avoid drowning in lines and lines of text. This translation is also particularly effective as the story approaches its climax: emotions run high in all the characters, and even when they speak their lines in English the bravery and fighting spirit shines through. (Of course, subtler feelings like fear or guilt come out just fine as well.) Unfortunately, some of the incomplete plot points can also be blamed on the script, as characters will hint at certain ideas or refer obliquely to events from the past, but never say it out loud directly. Come on, it's the last volume, why not just say why you waged a devious war against Kenji all these years?
But maybe that lack of logic is part of the series' logic: these 20th-century boys and girls grew up to be adults, but inside some of them were still just little kids, acting out a fantasy and thinking the way kids do. That's why some things are left unexplained: there's no rational, grown-up explanation for why the characters did them. It's a convenient excuse, but it won't satisfy those who were expecting a cataclysmic, loose-ends-tying, end-of-the-world finale. This volume is full of all the thrills and last-minute rescues that one would expect, with the characters coming together in a blaze of glory—but when there are something like eight different storylines up in the air, a few items will inevitably get dropped. Thank goodness for the upcoming epilogue, 21st Century Boys, which will hopefully answer some of the remaining questions. Because even when human civilation comes to an end, one can't help but ask: "And then what?"
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Multiple characters and subplots, dazzling action scenes, and cinematic storytelling make this a thrill ride all the way to the end.
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