Manga-ka: Naoki Urasawa
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: February 2011
Synopsis: “(Warning: Synopsis and review contains large spoilers.) The Friend is dead. As the news spreads around the world, the members of the Friends’ executive committee are faced with a dilemma: Is it all over, or will the events predicted in the New Book of Prophecy still be carried out? Otcho insists that things are not over at all, and that is exactly what his old nemesis tells the fractious Friends’ committee, where quite a few members are prepared to call it quits. Soon thereafter, certain members begin disappearing, one after another.”
Twelve volumes of chasing his identity and the world is now moving forward after the Friend’s assassination. What lays in store for a series that was so obsessed with a single revelation now that it’s number one source of intrigue is not only revealed but dead? Despite fans’ faith in Urasawa’s skill at weaving a good tale, it’s easy to feel some trepidation with a story that seems to have lost its focus. It’s a sentiment compounded by a volume that though chock full of interesting content, still feels fairly scattered.
It’s no surprise that the Friends’ death sends a shock wave across the planet. Millions are mourning the loss of the individual whom they’ve never seen but have always worshipped as their savior. As Kenji’s group recalls past events in a new light, now knowing who the Friend really was, it’s also not lost on them when some important individuals are winding up dead. Those closest to the Friend are more practically torn up by his sudden demise and the subsequent question of who will take his place. Interestingly the one who seems to be stepping up to the plate is not who many may think and there even seems to be some cold feet in regards to the Friends’ ultimate agenda. What everyone has in common right now however – good guys, bad guys and readers alike – is that no one’s taken aback by the fact that the Friend still seems to be controlling things even beyond death like a grinning puppeteer.
When a new viral infection starts springing up around the word, the story quickly shifts to a number of scenes that feel poignantly reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse – minus the zombies of course. Flocks of people desperately trying to get past police barricades, parents begging to have their children allowed to escape, individuals demanding they be tested to prove they aren’t sick – these scenes do a good job showing the terror as it spreads around the globe regardless of how brief some of the scenes actually are. While these chapters go for the crowd panic angle, they fall second fiddle to the more emotionally effective scene of a young boy trying to bury the inhabitants of his entire town after being its sole survivor.
Regardless of the viral outbreak’s intent to ensure the plot stays suspenseful however, there’s a definite feeling it was rushed. As readers we’ve gotten so accustomed to big events like this being foreshadowed to death, and then dropping like a bomb at the end of a volume, having this outbreak happen mid-volume and quickly spread sort of sullies the effect. Individual moments feel believably horrific, such as when Kyoko and her friend go searching for a potentially-cheating boyfriend only to discover an apartment of bloodied corpses, but the global effect and overall scheme-of-things falls a little short.
Instead of focusing on the bigger picture, volume thirteen is a lot more about the closer-to-home impact of individual events. This tight focus on specific people at different points in time at different places around the world drags readers around in a way that feels disjointed, hopping from one place to another. It makes the book as a whole feel uneven yet thankfully not in a way that adversely affects how powerful the different moments are on their own. A tearful reunion of manga-creating best friends is heart-warming and a scene where an elderly couple decide what to do when presented with a single dose vaccine is even more so, if not equally gut-wrenching. The unexpected re-introduction of two individuals from Kenji’s past is also handled really well, presenting them in a way that’s surprising, and perhaps too convenient, but also believably executed and emotionally-stirring in their own way.
These reappearances do bring to mind the question though – does anyone remember when Kenji was just a guy thrown into a world-affecting conspiracy he could barely comprehend with a baby strapped to his back? Impressive as Kenji’s dedication to their cause was, the constant revere showered upon him in his absence feels like he’s being placed on a pedestal far beyond even his own abilities and accomplishments. He’s brought up far too often for anyone to be that bewildered by an inevitable return someday and we can only hope Kenji’s up for the challenge of living up to his own legend.
Kenji’s family continues to write their own legacies in the meantime with his long-lost sister taking the forefront of relevance as Kanna is enlightened as to her Mother’s past. We now see that Kiriko is travelling on a lonely pilgrimage to find a vaccine that can save the world from this new strain of the blood-letting disease. Her relevance to the disease’s existence weighs on her heavily and, similar to her brother’s own mis-used intent with his Book of Prophecy, Kiriko is on a journey to correct the disasters her work has caused before it’s too late.
Continuing her relevance in a less intentionally self-sacrificing way is Kyoko, the teenage girl who accidentally fell into the affairs at hand. She always returns to the page right when the story needs a more sympathetic angle, not to mention how her energetic responses are a welcome break from the solemn faces and strategic thinking of everyone else. She’s continually proven herself spunky, brave and loyal while still believably freaking out about the horrors surrounding her. She really is a lot of fun and a great continuing element to the story. On top of that she continues being far more relevant than even she’d like to believe, including having a knack for figuring out things that are bound to be important.
The volume itself ends on a note far less white-knuckled for readers than most before it. In fact, the idea of returning to a place we thought dealt with actually feels more tiresome than intriguing. It adds to the sensation that we leave this thirteenth volume behind us with a bit of remaining unrest as to where 20th Century Boys will find its passion next. Simultaneously however, after finishing a volume full of so many strong scenes in their own right, we’re reminded again why it’s not a fear worth letting ruin all the series’ continually compelling aspects. This book feels like one of the series’ weakest in regards to a smooth, linear execution, and finishes with an ending that fails to grip readers as much as we’re accustomed, but all said and done, it’s hard to argue that a weaker volume of 20th Century Boys isn’t still a strong volume of manga all the same.