Expectations are one thing, delivering a trilogy of films based upon Naoki Urasawa’s masterpiece is a more terrifying proposition. 20th Century Boys tells the tale of a group of children that hang out in a grassy den after school. They create a book that depicts future Armageddon; they call it the Book of Prophecy. Sometime later, all grown up, they meet at a school reunion. People are dying at the hands of a sinister cult led by a mysterious leader known only as ‘Friend’, and the time they spent together as children is having a major influence on current events. Their predictions are coming true and the mysterious cult is using the symbol they created as their logo. Worse than that, could they really be responsible for the future of mankind?
The first film is almost two and a half hours long and not an awful lot happens. There’s very little action to speak of – though the finale sets up part two rather nicely – apart from a giant robot ripping through Japanese streets. That’s over two hours into the movie though; before then we are witness to the laying of foundations and character development. There are elements of Stephen King in there, perhaps just down to the structure, but there are definite similarities between the opening chapter of 20th Century Boys and King’s It. Without the rubbish spider of course. The central characters are engaging and the storyline is such a doozy you’ll find it hard to resist the films lure; it should definitely find a friend in you.
The second film – or rather ‘the terrifying second act’ – was always going to be a hard sell. There’s no beginning and no end, but Yukihiko Tsutsumi has to do enough to keep the viewer engrossed if he wants them back for part three. The Last Hope kicks off 15 years after the events of the first film, introducing us to a country that has fallen under the spell of cult leader Friend. Kenji (Karasawa Toshiaki) has been missing since the bloody New Year's Eve showdown, and is branded a terrorist along with his classmates. Kenji's niece Kanna (Taira Airi) – the cute kid in the baseball cap from part one – has grown into a spunky high school student who still looks cute in a baseball cap.
For her rebellious behaviour, Kanna is sent to ‘Friend Land’ for indoctrination, and earns the chance to enter a virtual reality world that holds the secret to Friend's identity. Which amounts to little more than girls playing with light guns and blasting computer-generated renditions of Kenji and his friends. A challenge that doesn’t go down too well at first. With Kanna's life in danger, faces from the past emerge from the shadows, but can they save the world from oblivion once more? Who exactly is Friend, and what does his New Book of Prophecy have in store for the rest of the world? Also, is this in any way related to the smoke monster from Lost?
Taira Airi’s Kanna carries much of the film's weight, taking over from uncle Kenji in part one, and it’s a refreshing change of pace to follow events from a young girls perspective. There are fewer flashbacks to be found here, much of the movie takes place in future Japan, so the story is more linear this time around. Don’t worry if you like your movies knee deep in conspiracy though, there are plenty of questions raised in part two, its very much business as usual from that perspective. There’s not much action to speak of, plenty of exposition to wade through, and any explanations are provided with the same slow burning tease. If you weren’t impressed with part one, don’t even bother with part two. Performances are strong, future Japan is striking and the returning themes of friendship, trust and honour are ever present.
The final chapter brings Kenji back to the heart of the movie; Kanna is relegated to sidekick and even more characters are introduced. With so many characters and story arcs, you’ll need to have the previous movies fresh in your mind before taking on this intriguing – not to mention baffling – finale. There are lots of flashbacks and most of the loose ends are tied up in satisfactory fashion. In an unlikely twist, Friend is given room to grow; his welcome back-story weaves a fascinating tale of loneliness and heartache.
The effects are more ‘effective’ than ever, used sparingly but worth every penny. Lets be honest though, who doesn’t like giant robots destroying entire city landscapes? Every movie should have at least one, and 20th Century Boys manages two, colour me happy indeed. We’ll leave the flying saucers for another time. The final chapter closes with a different ending to the manga, so don’t go thinking it’s time for a brew when the final credits roll. There are another fifteen minutes to play out yet, and the films ending is both surprising and quietly affecting.
20th Century Boys is a wonderful trilogy of films, engrossing and intoxicating in equal measures. It does require patience at times – the pedestrian plotting might put some viewers off – but for a manga/movie adaptation that was considered by many to be unfilmable, 20th Century Boys is a considerable success. Mixing science fiction, giant robots and Stephen King sensibilities, this is eight hours of your life well spent. AW