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Danielle Leigh’s Reading Diary — 20th Century Boys vol 6 and 7

While volume 5 remains the high point of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, volumes 6 and 7 boldly forestall resolving the central mystery without sacrificing plot development or pacing.

For those of you just joining us,  “20th Century Boys is about one’s man struggle against a seemingly worldwide conspiracy to bring about the end of the world on December 31st, 1999.  Kenji Endo’s life is pretty much an exercise in unfulfilled expectations — fast approaching 40 he’s never managed to reach any of his potential.  However, he may just be a born leader, a skill that comes in handy when he starts to uncover evidence of a mysterious plot to bring about terrifying incidents of death and devastation leading up to an apocalyptic finish at the dawn of the millennium.” (From my review of volumes 4 and 5).

(Warning about spoilers: I reference events from volume 5 freely, so you might want to skip if you haven’t yet read it.  However, I try to be as vague as possible about events from volumes 6 and 7).

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And I can’t help but start off by slipping in yet another quote from my review of volume 4 and 5:

“Volume 5 returns to the focus to Japan and charts the rapid-fire events that lead up to what is supposed to be the climactic moment of December 31st, 1999 but instead ends up being one of the biggest mysteries of the story.  Urasawa very deftly defies convention by not showing the reader what happens. Instead the second half the volume reveals the aftermath of the confrontation between Kenji’s rag-tag group of resisters and the big evil afoot, but not the “why.”  It’s a gutsy move that works and if I’m being exceptionally vague about what happens that is because I refuse to spoil the excitement and surprise of this volume.”

20th Boys vol 6The big reveal, which I didn’t want to spoil in the previous review, was the flash forward to 2014, focusing on Kenji Endo’s young niece, Kanna, now 17 years old in the storyline.  Today, of course, this is a mere 4 years in the future, but in the world of 20th Century Boys the “future” is a big let down.  It is neither post-apocalyptic nor utopian but a kind of seedy mess of “relative normality.”  It feels sort-of-but-not-quite like our reality and Kanna’s adoration of her own personal version of Kenji and distrust of authority — particularly police — is intended to give us a queasy feeling that this world is not quite right in spite of the fact there is apparent “peace.”  In a brilliant twist, Kenji’s become the very bad guy he once prophesied would appear, while the evil organization known only as the “Friends” have stepped in to become the saviors of the world.

In these volumes Urasawa expands out from Kanna’s life to give us a broader picture of not only significant social institutions — such as Japan’s prison-industrial complex, police force, and public schools — but also the story society tells itself about 1999’s Bloody New Year’s Eve and Kenji’s reviled place in history.   There’s a great meta-ness to how Urasawa uses Kanna’s classmate, who wants to write a history report on the infamous “terrorist” Kenji, and an imprisoned manga artist to question how we tell stories about ourselves and how those narratives construct our reality.  In both instances, there’s a strong sense that anyone who does follow the party line invites punishment — if not outright death — for somehow disturbing the strange stalemate of modern existence.  Yet it isn’t entirely clear who or what is so threatening to the “public order,” or who is really pulling the strings.

The book continues to jump from scenes from Kenji’s childhood, to Bloody New Year’s 20th boys 7Eve — the events of which are revealed only in flashback — and 2014.  As the book moves forward it becomes clear that the 20th Century Boys really belong to Kenji.  He created them, inspired them, gave them purpose and without him there’s a big gaping hole in the center of this work.   It is surprising, though, that this is not a flaw of Urasawa’s storytelling, since it allows us to see Kenji from multiple perspectives as key individuals reconnect and start to piece together what happened that fateful night.  While it is painful to see Kanna become his biggest cheerleader now that he’s an absence rather than a presence, her hero-worship of him becomes more and more understandable (if also terribly heart-breaking at the same time) as we see the various forms his heroism has taken over the years.

While I’ve always been excited by Urasawa’s plotting-skills, with volume 6 and 7 of 20th Century Boys I’ve come to appreciate what an astounding job he’s done with character-work in this title.  For me, the biggest mystery of this title is becoming Kenji Endo and how exactly he became a man who could save the world.

Review copies provided by Viz.

11 Comments

Normally, I don’t mind spoilers, but I will avoid them for a Naoki Urasawa book. But I’m soooo tempted to read the review.

*nods* Which is why I warned. If you haven’t read volume 5 DEFINITELY stay away (I’m more general about vol 6 and 7 but I understand your caution because Urasawa’s plots are a joy to read).

Thank you for being so very clear with the spoiler alert. I just picked up vol. 1 (taking a break from Pluto of which I finished reading volume five so i’m past half way and i’m loving it more and more) and i’ve got one chapter left to read. You were right to say it’s more ballsy than Pluto. This is my first introduction to Urasawa’s humor. I’m really enjoying 20th Century Boys so far. I’ve been buying more manga volume than comic trades so far and honestly it has been a wonderfully refreshing change of pace.

I think the only negative thing I have to say about 20th Century Boys is the art. It’s great art but it seems to me like it is more “traditionnal” manga art than Pluto. Pluto has some jaw dropping panels with an astounding amount of realistic detail in them. Urasawa sure knows how to draw a futuristic city skyline.

Mario — interesting point about the art. Pluto’s art is VERY powerful and I think Urasawa does an amazing job with both the skylines and his character work (some of those expressions are just HAUNTING). On the other hand, Pluto’s story doesn’t quite “thrill” the way 20th Century Boys does (that book really gets my blood pumping while Pluto often takes the air out of me — not in a bad way, just because it is just an emotionally intense reading experience).

I’m glad you are enjoying these titles so much…can’t wait to see what you think of later volumes of “Boys.”

I hate that you’ve already read volume 7 and I have to wait for it. Damn it!!!!!!

Greg — *coughs* Maybe I should have reviewed Pluto vol 6 and 7 instead? Both of which are also in the review pile. (I have a hard time with Pluto…I’m actually SCARED To read it, that is how powerful that book is for me. Maybe I’m just being a big baby).

Man, volume 7 of Pluto was pretty freakin’ awesome. It’ll hit you right in the gut.

Heck, I can wait for volume 7 of 20th Century Boys. It’s just so good that I don’t want to!

I think that’s one of the reason I decided to get a volume of Boys, in order to give me a break from Pluto, it’s very intense. I look forward too go back and finish the story though (thanks for telling me volume 7 was awesome Greg, like I need more incentive to spend money!). Pluto definetly deserves to be re-read once I finish volume 8 (which won’t take too long to come out, right?)

I’m scared to read 20th Century Boys because it’s so “thrilling”. I’m genuinely worried about what’s going to happen next.

Boy, it’s sure hard to comment and not talk about spoilers. But, Urasawa definitely makes some fun story-telling choices here. It’s amazing how he manages to get to 20+ volumes and never have his storytelling get tiresome.

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