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Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, Vol. 1
By Naoki Urasawa
Viz, 216 pp.
Rating: Older Teen
You know it’s a good sign when a manga begins by featuring one of your favorite songs. In this case, it’s “20th Century Boy” by British glam rocker T. Rex. The story begins in 1973 with Kenji, a rock-obsessed teen, trying to stir up the lunchtime crowd at his school by blasting them with jangling guitar chords rather than the easy listening stuff the audio-visual club normally broadcasts.
Revolution, alas, does not ensue.
This incident sets the tone for Kenji’s life. Ever since he was a child, the expectation has been that he would one day take over the family liquor store. Despite his big dreams of saving the world or becoming a guitar legend, nothing actually happens to derail his established path. 1997 (present day in the context of the story) finds Kenji pushing forty, unmarried, running the family business (now a convenience store), taking care of the infant daughter his sister abandoned, and bickering with his crabby mother about her habit of eating the merchandise. His childhood friends haven’t fared much better and though Kenji tries to convince himself that his life is okay as it is, his dissatisfaction can’t be quelled.
One day, two detectives arrive to question Kenji about some regular customers of his liquor delivery service who’ve gone missing. When Kenji goes to pick up the empty bottles they’ve left behind, he spots a familiar symbol—invented by one of his pals back in 1969—on the wall of their house. From this point on, the story alternates between memories of incidents in Kenji’s childhood and his efforts in the present day to figure out why he keeps seeing that same symbol everywhere, including on t-shirts worn by university students and in a letter sent to him by a friend who later dies in an alleged suicide.
Readers are afforded some tantalizing glimpses at what Kenji will eventually discover—a cult-like religious group led by a man known only as “our friend.” This man claims to offer his followers true tranquility, but also uses them to carry out assassinations (so-called “rejections”) of rival religious figures. His use of the symbol—formerly an emblem for Kenji’s gang of friends—and some of his comments suggest that “our friend” is most likely someone that Kenji grew up with. Kenji’s sense of responsibility to find out who’s using the symbol and for what purpose is similar to Dr. Tenma’s motivation in Urasawa’s other successful suspense manga, Monster, in which Tenma was trying to stop a psychopathic murderer whose life he had saved in the operating room.
But that isn’t all! In fact, so many plot threads and questions are advanced that one almost needs a scorecard to keep track of them. Did Kenji’s friend really kill himself? What’s up with the missing family? Is it connected to the death of a university student? Who was that mystery girl in chapter one? Was that a mecha that she saw? I actually wrote down the lingering questions I had after reading this volume and there are literally ten of them. Thankfully, I trust Urasawa enough to have faith that they’ll be satisfactorily answered at some point down the line.
If you’re thinking that this review is largely concentrated on plot, you’re correct, because the same can be said for 20th Century Boys itself. Still, there are some deeper themes in play, too. As Kenji and his friends begin to remember more details from their childhood together, one senses that they’re somewhat in awe of their past selves. In one scene, after discovering a time capsule of sorts buried by the boys many years before, Kenji muses:
Are we, today, the kind of adults we dreamed of becoming back then? Or would our childhood selves just look at us now and laugh?”
It seems that his character arc will be finding, through the pursuit of “our friend,” the kind of exciting life he’d always wanted for himself.
I’m a big fan of Urasawa’s art, especially the knack he has of imbuing scenes with an almost cinematic quality. That skill is definitely in evidence here, and I’m honestly not sure how he does it. All throughout the scene where Kenji speaks with the detectives, for example, the sense of the conversation taking place outside on a sidewalk is almost palpable. Reading 20th Century Boys reminds me of watching a movie—Stand By Me in particular. I’m now keen to see the live-action films inspired by the series.
At this point, 20th Century Boys is justifiably keeping most of its secrets close to its chest. It may well be years before all the answers are known, but I’ll be among those avidly awaiting each new installment of this ambitious tale.
Volume one of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys is available now.
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