Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 22nd 2012
20th Century Boys
Through a series of carefully calculated events, the ruthless but charismatic leader known as the "Friend" rose up to become ruler of the world in 2015. However, a few brave people are still fighting to take him down—including a mysterious guitarist on a motorbike who calls himself Yabuki Joe. The guitarist has made it as far as the border crossing into post-apocalyptic Tokyo, and while at the border town, he teams up with Ichi the Spade, a vigilante defender of justice, and a world-weary manga artist still trying to live out his dreams. Can these ragtag freedom fighters, as well as the other town residents, get past the border guards and massive fortress that block their passage into Tokyo? The final confrontation reveals a shocking secret about the man who runs the border crossing ... as well as Joe's true identity.
It's become practically a running joke at this point: the mysterious guitarist who appears in the late-teen volumes of 20th Century Boys is obviously the series' long-missing hero Kenji, but Naoki Urasawa insists on being coy and pretending like no one is quite sure who he is. Well, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief in this volume, because we finally get a definite answer from the man himself—and a rousing, action-packed story arc leading up to it. The fight to get past the Tokyo border is a collage of everything that makes the series great: dramatic confrontations, colorful characters, and past storylines resurfacing in unexpected ways.
What may be most surprising, though, is how this story arc doesn't rely on the complex conspiracies and twisting plot threads woven into the series. Instead, it runs on straight-up action-adventure formula—a lone crusader of justice stands up to the evil establishment, with a little help from the common people. But it's how Urasawa alters that formula to fit his vision that that makes it stand out: the border town and its people bring a unique Wild West flavor to the series, brushing right up against the more familiar post-apocalyptic setting. Manga artist Ujiki, a nearly-forgotten minor character, suddenly turns up as key contributor—thus connecting the story arc to past events, while also giving him a new role. But an even bigger connection is made when our guitar-wielding hero meets the "big boss" of the Tokyo border and learns how this narcissistic villain was involved in Kenji's past. So once again, here's proof that every part of the series—even something as simple as a defender of justice standing up to oppression—happens for a reason.
Good reasons don't always lead to good execution, though. The showdown between Joe/Kenji and his nemesis, epic as it may be, drags on too much: both of them end up stalling for time with the customary "I'm about to tell you something really important ... in the next chapter" gimmick. And while bringing back an unexpected minor character is a clever touch, it's almost too much of a fluke to be believable. A more large-scale problem, however, is how the main plotline gets pushed way off to the side: only the first couple of chapters and one scene at the end address what's going on with Kanna, Kyoko, and the other people planning to defeat the Friend. That's the ultimate point of the series, and yet all they get is a few transitory scenes?
Nonetheless, the action and adventure in this volume provide a golden opportunity for visual showmanship. Urasawa obviously has fun playing with the faux Wild West setting of the border town, dressing up Ichi the Spade and other characters in cowboy gear, as well as setting up a honky-tonk bar as their base of operations. The long-haired, bare-chested villain who faces off against Kenji is another triumph of character design, capturing all the traits of a crazed, power-hungry antagonist. But even the more level-headed characters each have a distinctive look to them, especially with their expressive facial features. Attention to detail is another one of the artwork's strengths, as seen in the convincing crowd scenes and carefully sketched backgrounds—although some shots of the border town are clearly taken from photo reference. What really ties all these artistic elements together, though, are the page layouts: the action moves seamlessly from one panel to the next, and a variety of close-ups and wide-angle views create a truly cinematic experience.
With the visuals doing a such a good job of telling the story, it's almost too easy to just sit back and be lazy about the script. Indeed, most of the dialogue is written in a plainspoken manner—short lines and simple words are all that's needed to get across the characters' intentions. But that doesn't mean this translation is entirely devoid of personality: some characters like Ichi the Spade have a particular manner of speech (thankfully, his cowboy drawl is kept fairly subtle), and in Kenji's big showdown, it only takes careful pacing and the impact of a few simple words to give an eloquent monologue. Sound effects also punctuate some of the action scenes, with Japanese text replaced by English equivalents. While the edited lettering does stand out noticeably against the artwork, it doesn't happen often enough to be a distraction.
With the final showdown against the Friend looming ever closer, it may seem counterintuitive for 20th Century Boys to suddenly sidestep into a Wild West tale of good versus evil, one man (and a small town) against the world. But this apparent detour is more than what it seems: it brings our mysterious hero one step closer to where all the action is, it connects past characters to present-day events, and finally we get a straight answer as to whether the guitarist is Kenji or not. Of course, the series maintains its high artistic standards through all this, with some post-apocalyptic action helping to add a little extra flair. So even though it leaves a lot of the major characters out of the picture this time, Volume 19 of 20th Century Boys is still just as exciting.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ An action-adventure arc with fresh characters and connections to other plot threads creates plenty of excitement (as well as answering one really obvious question).
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