20世紀少年 (20th Century Boys)
Directed by YukihikoTsutsumi
Starring Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa
20th Century Boys, created by Naoki Urasawa, is a science fiction mystery manga that cleverly combines the careless innocence of youth with the harsher reality of growing up in a world scarred by failure and terrorism.
Fresh from the reeling disappointment of Watchmen (I've seen it twice, am now tempted to lower my initial rating but will let it stay there for the meantime), I was a bit cautious to watch another ambitious adaptation. Still, I thought, not Hollywood.
To put it succinctly, the first installment of the 20th Century Boys trilogy is tha bomb. *Scrambles off for actual words*
Folksies, this is how a comic book adaptation should be made. As a visual medium, the panels should not be the shoot list. A faithful tribute is just an excuse for being lazy. Details, no matter how meticulously brought to life, do not make a movie. Besides, where's the fun in that, eh? Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi is clever enough to filter and borrow only the iconic images of the manga and frames the rest with his own point of view.
Covering the first five volumes of the sprawling, kaleidoscopic epic, the movie moves at a brisk pace, which is very necessary since this is first and foremost a mystery story that goes back and forth the past and the present. 20th Century Boys hits the ground running with an ominous conversation between two prisoners locked up in separate cells hinting at a darkness that blankets the country before transitioning to 1973 (the actual opening of the manga), where a boy named Kenji plays along to the opening riffs of T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" on a broom as the crunchy guitars ROAR its way through sleepy classrooms. Later on we see Kenji (Karasawa) in 1987, drained and tired and forced to smile as he tries to balance running a grocery store with taking care of a baby his sister has mysteriously left behind.
When one of his regular patrons disappears, Kenji decides to take chance at visiting the client's home to check if the family left behind any form of payment and discovers instead a symbol on a wall that is connected to his childhood.
In another area in the city, the police find a body that is drained of blood, possibly connected to a virus that has been killing hundreds in Africa. Has it reached Japan?
And some place else, a cult is born, worshiping a messianic masked man simply called "Friend," the symbol that Kenji saw printed across the cult leader's mask.
It is the same symbol that one of Kenji's childhood friends writes a letter to him about before dying a few days later.
The key to solving the mystery is in Kenji's childhood and in his circle of friends. And this is where the 20th Century Boys truly shines. The flashbacks are infused with such relaxed nostalgia where the kicked-up dirt mixes with sweat and snot, and bullies are rampaging giants who can break your bone at a whim. The warmly-hued scenes of playing in the fields also serve as a grating and ultimately heartbreaking contrast to the complex lives the grown-ups are leading. Evil is no longer getting your ass whupped or imagined villains straight from the pages of comic books. Evil is failure, the postponed dreams that grow more distant as the years pass, but also as palpable as murder, terrorist bombings, and betrayal.
The screenplay wisely omits a few scenes from the manga, with a couple of rewrites (the back story of Donkey comes to mind) for the sake of pacing, but I don't mind at all because the soul of the movie is intact and not drowned out by the nifty special effects or a stoic reverence to the source material.
Much like Stephen King's novel "It," 20th Century Boys follows the lives of childhood friends who have grown apart but are reunited by a pact they made decades ago. And Tsutsumi never loses sight of the movie's center: That it is possible to confront the monsters and giants we have always feared because true friends will always have your back.
In the movie's climactic showdown on the eve of the new millennium, even if I knew what was about to happen, I continued to cheer on for Kenji and his friends, secretly hoping for a different ending. Tsutsumi has made me care for these characters all over again, and differently from when I was reading the manga. It's a different experience altogether.
Now, that's how you do it Mr. Snyder.