Sunday, May 6, 2012

Manga Review: 20th Century Boys

What if it were up to you to save the world? Not you as a suave secret agent, a mighty super hero, or a veteran special forces commando. You as you.

20th Century Boys is about a man named Kenji, who is a convenience store clerk and may be humanity's only hope. A new cult is gaining power in Japan, while there are reports of outbreaks of an unidentified deadly disease in major cities abroad. At first none of this seems to have anything to do with Kenji, who is more concerned with keeping his struggling store in business while taking care of his sister's baby. But something about recent events is eerily familiar to Kenji.

The symbol the cult uses looks exactly like a symbol Kenji and his childhood friends came up with to represent their secret club. As Kenji struggles to remember, he realizes that the sequence of cities falling to the mysterious disease matches the pattern he and his friends invented as part of a story about an evil organization trying to take over the world.

If you read 20th Century Boys, you will become convinced that the creator, Naoki Urasawa, is a genius. Urasawa is the creator of the acclaimed series Monster, and is in a rock band as well. In 20th Century Boys, the way that he blends a threat to humanity with the day-to-day lives of average people is completely believable. The story constantly grows in complexity as it follows several stages in the characters' lives. Seeing how the characters change as they get older allows the readers to get to know them on a deeper level.

The mystery is compelling without being frustrating, and that is a tricky tightrope to walk. While the mystery involves elements of science fiction, it makes sense in the story because the cult's plot is somehow tied to the daydreams of school-aged boys. While it may not make sense for grown men to think about giant robots and ray guns, these things are the staple of lazy summer days when kids are relaxing between school terms. I don't want to give anything away, but the way the sci-fi elements are introduced to the story actually helps ground the plot rather than making it unbelievable.

More than any other element, the characters are what make 20th Century Boys great. Kenji, who wanted to be a rock star as a kid, now works at a struggling convenience store. Maruo, the chubby kid who loved ramen and manga, owns a small store selling cute accessories to teenagers while helping his fat son sneak out and eat ramen when they're both supposed to be on a diet. Yoshitsune was the dorky kid with glasses who was glad to be part of the group, and now he works in an office while his marriage is falling apart. Then there's Otcho, the bug-eyed kid who became an extremely successful salesman before he disappeared.

Additional characters get introduced along the way, and seeing how they all fit into the overall plot proves again that Urasawa is a genius. He has a subtle way of setting something up that plays out much later. Sometimes when you re-read past volumes, you find hints of later events. I didn't find this gimmicky. Instead, it helped the story flow and develop naturally.

I highly recommend 20th Century Boys. The full run of the manga is complete in Japan, but the English translation has not caught up yet, so I don't know how it ends. I do know one thing, though: [spoiler] can never not be a badass. Once you check out this series, you'll know exactly who I mean.

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