Manga-ka: Naoki Urusawa
Rating: Mature (18+)
Released: February 2009
Synopsis: “Failed rock musician Kenji’s memories of his past come rushing back when one of his childhood friends mysteriously commits suicide. Could this new death be related to the rise of a bizarre new cult that’s been implicated in several other murders and disappearances? Determined to dig deeper, Kenji reunites with some of his old buddies in the hope of learning the truth behind it all. Humanity, having faced extinction at the end of the 20th century, would not have entered the new millennium if it weren’t for them. In 1969, during their youth, they created a symbol. In 1997, as the coming disaster slowly starts to unfold, that symbol returns. This is the story of a gang of boys who try to save the world.”
Coming soon on the heels of Monster’s completion in English, comes one of two new Naoki Urusawa titles to grace North American shores: volume one of 20th Century Boys. Part a tale of childhood, part suspenseful mystery, 20th Century Boys maintains focus on a group of friends whose childhood adventures seem connected to current day events of disappearing families and murdered comrades.
Starting out with a failed attempt of rock and roll revolution in school hallways, this first volume of 20th Century Boys begins to build the world foundation and characters that will make up this multi-volume suspense story. Readers will be introduced to a variety of characters, both major and minor, as we learn about their lives, some both past and present. Behind the backdrop of this modern day society stirs some dark devotion in the form of a cult that utilizes a symbol very familiar to an apparently unrelated group of childhood friends.
First to start piecing the odd coincidences together is Kenji, a young man taking care of his niece in the absence of his sister and struggling with thoughts of his family business and shoplifting-from-her-own-store, Mother.
Much of the story involves flashbacks to this group’s childhood, often memories triggered by Kenji’s current activities or discoveries. These flashbacks focus on games they played together as children and the forging of their friendships, in particular regarding one who meets an unfortunate end present-day. I really loved these childhood flashbacks because the inevitable comparisons made by both readers and the characters of the high hopes and enthusiasm they had as children, versus themselves now, make for easy empathy. What would our childhood selves really think if they saw us today?
By the end, just when the Kenji and his friends start to deliberate whether or not all these strange occurrences are coincidental, they’re literally given a bite in the backside that gives them a coincidence that they’ll have a lot of trouble ignoring when volume two comes around.
Naoki Urusawa’s skill also continues past just being an incredibly talented writer. His art style is with its own charms as he’s able to portray so much diversity amongst his characters, all of whom have distinct and life-like features that suit the reality-grounded nature of his storytelling. From terror-stricken faces to laughs that come from their very soul, the art makes for a great visual representation of the emotions and mood carrying the plot. As I’ve found with Urusawa’s work before, there’s also a strong cinematic feel to each and everyone of his panels that pace from one to the other so fantastically that I can’t help but envision it as a movie (though would fear a failed attempt to grasp the fluidity of the source material). That said, it does make me very curious to see the first of the 20th Century Boy movies recently released.
All in all, while I didn’t find myself as instantly captivated as I was after finishing the first volume of Monster, I am none the less completely intrigued by 20th Century Boys. I left volume one with so many unanswered questions but have faith in Naoki Urusawa that all my curiousity will be rewarded in time. Working from the skins of a coming of age story and layering on some heavy mystery elements, I can’t wait to sink my attention span into the next installment to see where this unraveling tale of suspense leads us next.