One name has dominated manga over the last few years – in the west at least – Naoki Urasawa. Probably best known for his dark mystery series (and it’s subsequent anime spin-off) Monster and Pluto, his recent re-telling of a story arc from Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, the series that has most recently grabbed not only the attention and awards but also spawned a trilogy of live action movies is the sci-fi and comedy tinged mystery 20th Century Boys. Despite the ferocious buzz around the comic across manga-fandom, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that it was only this month I finally managed to sit down and check it out, courtesy of Viz Media dropping me copies of the first two books to review.
And, in all honesty, I can say that despite all the hype I wasn’t quite prepared for the impact these two books would have on me.
From the very first page, 20th Century Boys is a thoroughly entertaining read. There’s a multitude of reasons for this, but primarily – and I’m thrilled to say this considering some of the anime and manga I’ve been sent to review recently – it’s the story that makes it so engaging. Starting in the summer of 1969 it tells the tale of a group of young boys who build a hideout they name their secret base, in which they and their friends can get together to share manga, stolen porno mags and listen to rock music. Influenced by the manga and anime of the time, they daydream about one day being Gatchaman style super-shonen-heroes, thinking up stories where in the future Japan and the rest of the world is threatened by killer robots, diseases and invading aliens, with only the band of friends able to divert the apocalyptic disasters.
Flash forward to the 1990s, and the boys are in their 30s. Our main protagonist Kenji is running the family convenience store (or combini), his earlier dreams of being a super hero dashed along with his teenage plans to become a rock star, as his main day-to-day concerns are onigiri expiry dates and looking after his missing sister’s baby son. He’s reunited again with his childhood friends when one of the group apparently commits suicide – something that neither Kenji or any of his friends seem convinced of, and a little investigation and some bizarre occurrences combine to bring to light the involvement of a strange new religious cult, and even more shockingly, the revelation that some of the events the boys dreamed up as kids may actually be about to take place.
And that, I’m afraid, is about as much as I can tell you about the plot. Anything more would ruin the reading experience, as 20th Century Boys is the kind of densely packed, multi-layered story where the thrill and pleasure for the reader comes from watching it unfold. Furthermore, it’s testament to Urasawa’s undeniable skill as a master storyteller that for every decade jumping flashback, and every minor character that is introduced, the narrative never once feels hard to follow, each piece of the puzzle falling into place in the most exquisite and satisfying of ways. At times reminiscent of the best of Stephen King’s coming of age novels as well as the generation spanning conspiracies of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the manga manages to combine enough references to Japanese life and culture while never once becoming unapproachable to the uninitiated western reader – making it a perfect entry point for those new to the art-form, or even comics in general. Again it is the story that is, at all times, paramount here.
As if Urasawa-san’s skills as a writer weren’t mesmerising enough, then it’s almost sickening to take on board that he drew 20th Century Boys as well. Employing a more realistic then normal art-style and a cinematic approach to framing every page is an utter delight to look at. The character designs, while almost mundane at first-glance in their realism, are in truth one of the manga’s strongest assets; watching our hero Kenji transformed from scruffy schoolboy through slacker rocker to down-trodden shop manager is thoroughly convincing, especially perhaps for those of us of a similar age who’s lifes may not have turned out exactly as our childhood dreams had predicted.
It’s here perhaps that the secret of 20th Century Boys’ success truly lies; Urasawa’s enviable talents for depicting believable human expression and writing natural-sounding dialogue combine to create a cast of characters so convincing that following the complex and often fantastic plot is never nothing less than a complete joy, and an experience seldom rivaled in any genre or medium. Based on reading just these first two volumes 20th Century Boys is an unmissable masterpiece that I cannot fail to recommend to anyone, whether a seasoned manga fan or newcomer to the artform, and one that I cannot wait to see through to it’s conclusion.