20th Century Boys – 20世紀少年
Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi (堤幸彦)
Cast: Toshiaki Karasawa (唐沢 寿明), Etsushi Toyokawa (豊川悦司), Takako Tokiwa (常盤貴子)
Another manga adaptation hits the silver screen with 20th Century Boys. Created by author Naoki Urasawa, it is equal parts It and The Stand with a carefully constructed doomsday prophecy as the core story element. Though much is lost from the original manga, this first part in the soon-to-be-completed trilogy of films does a fine job of establishing believable characters and a very credible (in the film world), larger-than-life threat. And even though there is a certain tongue-in-cheek style to the performances and special effects which may turn off some hoping for the dramatic weight that the manga carried, the end result is an engaging and clever thriller.
First and foremost, let’s get this out of the way — no film adapted from such an expansive source material will be able to do it justice. That’s just the nature of the beast. But consider, for a moment, that film and print are two completely different media, each with some exclusive storytelling rules. Whereas print, especially the episodic nature of manga, affords creators the luxury of time and space without having to spend millions on production and promotion, film, as a more commercial medium that must attract non-fans in addition to longtime fans, is limited due to funds, collaborative talents of hundreds of artists and technicians, and external forces which directly and indirectly affect and influence the filmmaking process. One of the primary reasons why the first two Harry Potter films received such a critical bashing was because they stuck too closely to the books, ignoring non-fans and favoring fan service over essential story elements. So with 20th Century Boys, if you want depth and breadth, go for the manga. But if you’re looking for a slightly truncated yet accomplished and entertaining film adaptation, then make it a point to check this out.
Toshiaki Karasawa stars as Kenji, one of a group of friends reunited after 30 years under bizarre circumstances including mysterious deaths, the proliferation of a familiar symbol they created as children, and the appearance of a masked stranger who calls himself Friend. The problem is that all of these occurrences seem to come directly from the group’s childhood, most notably from the doomsday scenario they dreamed up in comic book form (called the Book of Prophecy) which culminates in a worldwide takeover by an evil organization on New Year’s Eve, 1999. As the group imagined themselves as the heroes of the story, so too in reality must they work together to stop Friend before the new year and protect Kenji’s niece Kanna, a chosen one of sorts with strange ties to Friend.
The film is a mystery at heart, but it is less involving than a whodunnit such as The Thin Man and more presentational, as Japanese films typically are. This is due to the nature of the story in which the facts are not laid out for us but are in the characters’ fading memories. The more they remember, the more we learn. Who is Friend? What is the significance of Kenji’s niece Kanna? Naturally the film cannot answer all questions, and it ends in a doozy of a cliffhanger which will be continued in the next installment, but this first chapter provides ample reasons to come back for more. The ominous atmosphere created by the far reaching hand of Friend casts a suitably dark shadow over the entire story. While audience friendly to an extent, there are some depressing moments and scenes of violence and destruction. But the film is held together by a largely cohesive cast. Kenji is a little too aloof and slow to catch on at times, but his relationships with fellow group members such as the muscular Otcho (Etsushi Toyokawa) and tomboyish Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa) help to drive the film, and his transformation from failed musician and lowly convenience store manager to the hero he imagined as a child is compelling storytelling with excellent payoffs. But these positives existed in the original manga, so the filmmakers should be applauded for at least sticking to the source material for the important story elements. The film also does an admirable job of capturing the characters’ collective history. Everything from how they met and created their own mythology to their confrontations with twin bullies is portrayed parrallel to present day events with nary a single scene wasted. The film omits much of the material between childhood and present day, but remember, there are still two films yet to be released (well, as of this review, only part three has yet to appear in theaters).
So the final verdict? Nitpicking over ommissions is rather pointless as there are still two films left. Likewise, complaining about already apparent differences with the manga does nothing but point out the oh-so-obvious fact that print and film are two completely different media. Let’s face it, reading takes a lot of effort for many people, in terms of time, attention, and even intelligence. That’s not to say that films are dumbed down or meant for those who are less intelligent, but the fact is they service audiences on both a passive and active level. Nobody would criticize a semaphore version of 20th Century Boys for missing the point because it’s a different medium. I argue that the same rule should be applied to films with original source material such as manga. Just because the two are both popular media does not place them in the same mutually exclusive category. Similar criticisms are already being levied against Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. But whereas Snyder, a not-so-visionary director with only three feature films to his credit (only one of which is worthwhile), imbues his films with an almost masturbatory sense of self-importance, Tsutsumi’s 20th Century Boys feels rewarding as opposed to punishing and self-flagellatory.