20th Century Boys: Nijyusseiki Shōnen

“Listen, I know a real champion of justice. He never ran away… He fought against evil all by himself. He was my best friend…”

It is the summer of 1969, and young Kenji Endo and his friends have built themselves a secret hideout in which to read comics and escape from their tormentors, the Terrible Twins. “None of this will happen!” observes one of the boys as they read one particular comic depicting doomsday scenarios. So taking suggestions from his friends, Kenji sits down to write their very own similarly far-fetched “Book of Prophecies” for the future.

By 1997 Kenji has forgotten all about the fantasy written in the Book of Prophecies as well as his own personal fantasy of being a rock guitarist, and is instead unwisely attempting to move his family’s liquor store towards the 21st Century by turning it into a franchised mini-mart. However, when he is approached at a school reunion by a friend who’s wife has recently left him to join a cult, Kenji is surprised to learn he was suspected of being the cult’s leader “Tomodachi” (Friend) as Tomodachi’s prophecies are the same as those he had written in the book almost thirty years ago. Soon they all come to realise the cult and it’s masked leader must be connected to them somehow, and as if that wasn’t disturbing enough to Kenji and his friends, soon the prophecies begin to come true. They may not know who Tomodachi is, but there can only be one answer to the identity of the group of heroes who have to stop him…

20th Century Boys is adapted from the Naoki Urusawa’s popular manga of the same name, which I have to admit I was not familiar with at the time of watching, but will most certainly be tracking down. This in no way spoiled my enjoyment of what is a highly enjoyable and often brilliant film. For what must certainly be the most expensive manga to live action adaptation ever, 20th Century Boys delivers every penny of the 6 billion yen budget put aside for the trilogy. So many important story lines are weaved throughout it’s almost two and a half hour length that I can honestly say I couldn’t bear to tear my eyes from the screen for a single moment.

It reminded me at times of film masterpiece “The Godfather Part II” in that it’s long running time is made much more palatable by the fact that the main 1997-2000 storyline is broken up with flashbacks to the adventures of Kenji and his friends in 1969. This device works very well to create meaningful relationships between the characters (as well as to feed the audience hints about just who Tomodachi might be) and these segments are really the heart of the film until it’s similarly emotive climax. We learn who Kenji and his friends were in the past, and from these day-dreaming kids who they grew up to be. Some of their paths in life seem predictable, others unexpected and some (even that of Kenji himself) slightly sad. It’s something viewers of a certain age will no doubt recognise in themselves and their friends. Dreams which went unfulfilled, perhaps best represented by Kenji’s early love for rock music and his dream that it would change the world; That he could use it to change the world. At first viewing I thought a scene where Kenji plays his guitar for the first time in years seemed needless and a little fan-service-y until I realised that it was symbolic of the rekindling of Kenji’s dreams. No longer a downtrodden shopkeeper he is ready to be not only the rocker of his youth again, but the hero to his friends he was back in his school days. The flashback scenes in particular are made all the more effective for the masterful casting of the childhood versions of the main characters. It is so well done in fact that it’s almost hard to believe the lead actors hadn’t really been filmed thirty years ago for these segments.

The main plot of the film is that of Kenji trying to discover Tomodachi’s true identity, and it is a very engaging one for the viewer to follow. The clues come slowly, but there is so much back story to be revealed in between that the pacing always seems tight and at times, almost frantic. Towards the end it also becomes a case of Kenji and his friends attempting to resist as the cult gains power, Kenji having been blamed for their terrorist activities. Perhaps the most awkward point in the film for me was the shift from 1997 to 2000, as no explanation is given for quite how Tomodachi has managed to shift the blame onto Kenji, especially given that one of his followers had already committed a high profile murder of another cult leader. But it’s a small nitpick in what is altogether a very solidly constructed plot.

The acting (as is often the case in Japanese cinema) is a little overly dramatic at times, but the cast on the whole are excellent. Toshiaki Karasawa is undoubtedly the star of the show as Kenji, but never overshadows his fellow lead actors – You truly believe that they are a group of old friends rather than Kenji being the “One cool kid who for no apparent reason hangs around with a bunch of losers” Hollywood would undoubtedly have given us with the same script. Despite the unusually large budget, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi resists the temptation of overblown action sequences and CGI. Instead using both sparingly and effectively at the climax of the film to merge the real and fantasy worlds in such a natural way that it still feels believable.

For all my praise of 20th Century Boys it still must be said that this is not a film for those with short attention spans or the easily confused. There are a lot of characters introduced early on, and it would be easy to lose track of who’s who, what their relationships to others are and if and when you’ve seen them before. Many will also be left frustrated at the fact that important mysteries are left unresolved, as there are two more films yet to be released in the UK (the second is now out in Japan). But for those with patience, even before the trailer following the credits the film has another surprise to throw at you, which certainly made me yearn for the next part of the story even more.

9 / 10