20th Century Boys is a 22+2 volumes long manga series by Naoki Urasawa that is rather popular in Japan.
In a way it can be considered the japanese version of Stephen King’s IT (as the recent “Kappa No Coo” animated movie is the japanese version of E.T.). The narrative proceeds in parallel following a group of friends as kids and then when they grow up, all done through flashbacks and glimpses and then a whole lot of retro-connections and new revelations that make you go back and reread to try to figure out something new. There aren’t all that many works of fiction with an elaborate mythology with payback on the long run, all the while trying to unveil mysteries and tie together the multiple plot threads. Lost, Battlestar Galactica, X-files, Erikson’s Malazan series, Akira, Evangelion, Donnie Darko, these are examples of mythologies that have a certain ambition and development in common, and all of them are flawed in a way or another.
The manga was great because it creates so many speculations. The more volumes you read, the more crazy theories come up and Urasawa keeps you constantly on the brink of some huge revelation that never comes but also never completely disappoint. It’s the kind of manga that you read frenetically to reach the last page, then are left wanting more. This movie is one of the most faithful transpositions of fiction I’ve seen, but it kinda fails to be good as its own thing, and it’s also not so good even when linked to the manga. It tells nothing more.
However, it’s full of awesome and makes you go quickly through the manga. Where it fails is in feeling authentic. Even the manga has some naive parts but they seem to work better as one of Urasawa’s skills is about playing these common, naive themes and make them look serious and dramatic. The movie, in being a movie and not for some flaws of transposition, appears more “stiff” and fake-ish. The acting is nowhere realistic and instead of drama you have the effect of a comedy, so when there are dramatic scenes that would require some involvement you are left watching with a big disconnection with what is going on.
The movie doesn’t seem to miss any step, though. The plot is all there, nothing is out of place and the cast, especially the kids, seems coming alive out of the drawn page. But again it doesn’t work to its full potential because all the time is used to follow the plot and not enough to develop characters and have the spectator care for them. I have no idea what is going to think of this movie one who didn’t read the manga. Even after twenty-two 200-pages long volumes I still mistake a character for another, or completely forget someone. The risk is that this movie would be extremely hard to follow, or maybe the opposite, it would be more easy to like because you can focus on a simplified exposition and so recollect only what’s really relevant.
Despite the flaws with realism, stiff acting and lack of serious character development, it’s an interesting movie that tries to keep an impossible balance between looking “serious” and making a caricature of everything. In the end it’s what makes it awesome. It plays with wonder and many of the typical japanese unrealistic situations common in the mangas. The manga version does all of this much better, this movie is the most faithful transposition possible, especially the iconography. Some scenes seem done as movie first, and then drawn in the manga.
Even if almost two hours and half long, this isn’t all. Just the first of a trilogy :)
You may notice that the end song in the movie is the same I posted about three years ago.