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20th Century Boys (Manga review)

In 1969 a group of childhood friends build themselves a secret base within which they plan to spend their summer.  Their idea was to loaf-around reading manga, listen to the radio and enjoy their childhood.  To symbolise their friendship one of their group creates an image, a bit like a gang symbol.  As time passes and their friendship group expands they create a story within which the world is in peril and where this group of friends take a stand to save the world.  Towards the end of the 1990s as the 20th century comes to an end and when they have all grown up and taken on responsibilities, some of these stories seem more like prophecies.  They start to come to pass.  It is time for this set of childhood friends, Kenji, Maruo, Otcho, Yoshitsune and Yukiji to take back their symbol and save the world.

Some of you will have seen 20th Century Boys on the manga shelf of a local book shop or library.  Its name and covers always intrigued me.  As I always saw random and disparate volumes I didn't feel like I wanted to approach it.  It looked a bit too adult or too grown up for me, and it certainly did not fit in what my naive view of manga was.  That was a mistake made by younger-me but with hindsight I think it was for the best.  20th Century Boys is a *big* story in both where it goes and how it fits on your shelf.  It comes in at 22 volumes which for me seeing a random volume 19 or 21 was a barrier to entry.  I know there are longer manga series but 22 volumes is a significant investment in time ... and money.  I was drawn to this manga (if you'll pardon the pun) by the enthusiasm and passion conveyed for this work by the hosts of the now (sadly) no longer published Manga Out Loud podcast (featuring Ed Sizemore and Johanna Draper Carlson).  I was now ready, being older and slightly wiser, to start what has become one of my favourite manga and also discover a new favourite author in Naoki Urasawa.

As you can imagine with a manga this long to summarise the story, with or without providing any plot spoilers, cannot do it justice.  In 1997, Kenji, our protagonist, is manning the convenience store that belongs to his family whilst also looking after his niece Kanna.  She is the daughter of his sister who ran away shortly after Kanna was born.  The young Kenji had dreams of being a rock-star but is now getting on with life.  He still sees his childhood friends Yoshitsune, Keroyon and Mauro and through them hears of mysterious disappearances and suicides.  Whilst tidying up at work he sees a mysterious yet familiar symbol carved into the fence outside but can't place where he knows it from.

Kenji attends the wedding of Keroyon where he asks his childhood friends about the symbol.  Like Kenji they just can't place it.  It was oh-so-familiar but they couldn't quite place it.  Sometime after the wedding the group hear of the suicide of their childhood friend, Donkey.  Shortly before the wake for Donkey, Kenji receives a message *from* Donkey containing the same symbol.  On a mission to investigate it Kenji discovers that the symbol is connected to some kind of cult, the Friends.  By now he is sounding like a broken record to his friends who all know that it is familiar, they just can't place it, but have a great time remembering their childhood.  Then one night they remember they buried a time-capsule under a tree in their old neighbourhood.  When they unearth it the same symbol is on the lid.

Slowly they begin to piece the mystery together - they see it is rooted in the summer of 1969.  They find out that their symbol has been taken and that the Book of Prophecy, a story they wrote during the summer where they imagined great events shaking the cities of the world is starting to become real.  Terrible events are happening across the world.  They need to remember what comes next to avert the impending tragedy and become the heroes they imagined they would be.

The whole story of 20th Century Boys is told in both a linear and non-linear fashion.  We start the story in 1997 and finish at some unspecified point in the future.  The present day (of the manga) events unfold from 1997 linking back to what happened during the summer of 1969 as our characters reminisce.  Those events from 1969 have a direct influence on the story in the "present day" of 1997 and beyond.  As the story moves into its future it is told in what I can only describe as nested flashbacks.  These combine snippets from the end of the 20th century *and* the 1960s.  What's more it all makes complete sense and tells a superb story that is perfectly paced.

This manga is definitely aimed at an older audience.  Some of its content is apocalyptic in its nature and tone.  We have biological warfare, invading aliens, giant robot destruction, political manipulation and murder to name some of the more unsavoury elements.  Early on as we are introduced to the Friends we see what happens to those who are "rejected" or excluded from the group.  This more personal or intimate act of rejection is more shocking than those larger-scale events.  There is a sense of intimacy in the drawing and in those taking part in the rejection.  Urasawa uses both the large and small-scale events to propel his story along and manages to maintain an epic scale whilst also making it very character driven.

At this character level 20th Century Boys brings in the themes of family, determination, duty, taking responsibility (in all its forms and at any age) and friendship.  It even brings in the concept of a work-life balance and couples it with the idea that there are some things that are just too important to miss.  The friendship theme resonated with me the most.  I took from it that your true friends will be there for you when you need then and they will do anything to help you.  Even if the end of the world looks likely.  You see this in the way that the characters look at each other in the panels and no matter how old they are that look is there. We also see or hear it in the way that they talk to each other. It is a mix of fondness and familiarity. For this credit must be given to the translator Akemi Wegmüller who has done a superb job in taking the dialog and making it flow and feel naturalistic in another language. It really is excellent.

Kenji and his friendship group contain what I would consider to be the standard mix of archetypes.  For a story focusing on a male friendship group we have the cool one, the nerdy one, the one that eats a bit too much, the local bullies, the dependable friend, the headstrong feisty girl who could have been a love interest and the dreamer.  Urasawa makes each of these a unique person within the tale and whilst at times conforms to convention it never strays into cliche.  As we have all been that age it is simple enough to relate and project our own experiences to fill in the blanks or the gaps between image frames to flesh out our characters.  Each of the characters is given a back/forward story that fits with what they have experienced during the tale and their actions, which are fantastical, follow logically from what has come before.

Each of the characters are also shades of grey.  No one is "good" or necessarily "evil".  Everyone is complex mix of motivations that when revealed can't help but draw you in more to look for additional clues in the panels and text.  It all fits in with that logical flow I allude to above and the kind of non-linear-but-linear storytelling style definitely shows how it all fits together.

There is a cinematic quality to 20th Century Boys which is more than the scale of the story (in look and length) but in the way in which chapters, the pages and the frames on a page are ordered.  (We did get three films in the early 2000s based on the manga which I admit I haven't seen.)  The example that comes to mind (which I will not spoil) occurs when Kenji's friends are piecing together the mystery of the identity of "The Friend".  As each group and person learns something new it cuts to another to reveal their knowledge and so on.  Each scene is shorter than the last and it creates a great sense of tension for the reader because you know everything they know and you know you have met The Friend and yet like Kenji's friends, you don't know who the Friend is.  It feels like you are watching a scene from a tense thriller with each cut ratcheting up the tension.  And the reveal was spot on.  With each bit of new information I can remember saying out loud "oh it was that bit with the ... but who was it?" and getting more frustrated as I could not picture this character at all but I could place them as those in the story could. I can still remember my shock and surprise at the reveal.

I was and am still amazed by how 20th Century Boys hooked me and by how much I enjoyed it.  Reading it always gave rise to the dilemma of reading the next chapter or the next book straight away or letting what I had just experienced settle, think about it and then get back into it.  It is an absolute page-turner and there are moments that I can remember so clearly from it.  Even though the reader has all the information to hand from previous issues, that we have seen or been present at all the events, the story has been expertly told so that every reveal has the right weight.  The tale is perfectly paced and I have yet to read anything else so well put together as this manga.

Over the years I have grown to really like the art-style of Urusawa.  When I first saw it in a review of Pluto I was not that interested.  He has a functional, no-frills art-style that unlike say, Kaoru Mori, doesn't blow you away.  It is not a graceful or elegant style.  It does however capture the everyday perfectly and the slightly sketchy lines give people a sense of transience, as if you're just seeing it that one time.  With the "everyday" I would also include people.  He doesn't draw the chisel-jawed hero or the extreme body-shaped heroines, nor are they the types of big-eye designs that many of us have grown up with.  This style was something I admit turned me off when I saw it to begin with.  He draws people, normal everyday people and this gives an extra weight to all of his characters.  They could quite easily be someone you pass by in the street or who you live next door to.  From his drawings you can tell nationalities from features (without resorting to stereotype) and intent from posture.  It is only as I have got a bit older that I have come to appreciate his art style.  It is not a showy style but couples closely with his story telling and just draws you in.

The manga was originally published between 1999 and 2006 (in Big Comic Spirits) but its story almost feels more powerful now than when I read it.  In an age of where there is distrust of large organisations; where celebrity and their followers have significant power; where there are elements of society that do not trust government; and where (fake) news can be manipulated much of the story felt less fantastic and at times very plausible.

20th Century Boys is a masterpiece and is something I would happily recommend to my peers without reservation.  As my age approaches the characters in the books I cannot help but identify with some of their stories or put myself in their world. Clocking in at 20+ volumes yes it is long but Urasawa has crafted a great story within a fantastic but plausible future Earth.  His functional but naturalistic art style helps ground the story further and hints that it is more an adult tale.  It is an absolute page turner and it is paced to perfection with twists, turns and reveals that will bring about an audible reaction.  This manga is a brilliant introduction to Urasawa's work and if there is a downside to this it is other manga invariably fall short of the high standard this sets.

20th CENTURY BOYS is published by VIZ Media.