A little while ago, this reviewer was seen complaining about a certain live action film’s failure to translate coherently from its source material. And admittedly, it’s possibly an unfair criticism. After all, a feature film is a limited frame of time and a manga series – particularly a long running manga series – has years to tell its story (and in film’s defense, some manga reads like the author doesn’t know where the hell it’s going, either).
The makers of the live action film 20th Century Boys, like the makers of the Death Note films, have cottoned on to a better solution though – instalment cinema. Peter Jackson did it, Harry Potter is still doing it. It’s the ultimate answer to what to do with too much plot and not enough time; just make more time. Then, with the resources needed for one film, you can make two or even three, and actually give yourself a chance to do a half decent job of it.20th Century Boys, I’m happy to say, does more than a half decent job of it.
I’ll preamble this with the disclaimer that I haven’t actually read Naoki Urasawa’s manga (he’s also responsible for the superlative Monster), but I maintain that since we’re talking about film, I shouldn’t have had to. It’s just lazy film-making to expect me to rely on my knowledge of a manga series in order to uphold the narrative integrity in a film based on it. I’m not interested in how like the manga it is; I’m interested in if it’s a coherent, entertaining piece of cinema and a way to spend two hours (or more) of my life that I won’t in fact wish I could get back. And not to put you off or anything, but for about the first twenty minutes or so, I had to tell myself to give 20th Century Boys a chance, because it kicks off with not one, but three separate narrative threads. Based on recent experiences, this is a disaster just waiting to happen. Isn’t it?
In less capable hands, probably it would have been, but despite the potential confusion, the narrative is one hundred percent under control. Kenji Endo is a twenty something slacker, working in the quintessential Japanese convenience store with his slightly kooky mum. He used to be in a rock band, but working in the family business and helping look after his abandoned niece is his way of growing up. Or maybe avoiding life; it’s hard to tell which.
In the first film’s opening, Endo attends – reluctantly – a school reunion, and with the help of some of his childhood friends, dredges up a long forgotten memory involving a mysterious symbol he’s recently seen. What that symbol has to do with the second thread – a group of school children living in an idyllic (complete with warm tone film filters) country town – and what Endo’s story has to do with the third thread as hinted at from the depths of a clearly futuristic prison, soon becomes clear. The actual present into which all these threads converge is an Orwellian nightmare and the figure tying them all together in one way or another is the mysterious and somewhat schizophrenic fellow called Friend; part dictator, part cult leader, all crazy and working on all creepy just to round his CV out. Friend’s every action comes straight out of a book of Prophecies – a book that Endo and his clubhouse wrote when they were young; a book that foretells the end of the world.
And that’s about where 20th Century Boys starts to get interesting.
This story is a hero’s epic adventure at heart, but there are much deeper themes running through it – themes of regret, of wrong doing, of compassion and necessity, of growing up and facing your fears, of taking responsibility for your actions. There’s also a great deal of enjoyment to be had – from the unexpected mecha battle (old school giant robots, I kid you not, and it is mighty) to the story’s charm and humanity to it’s choreographed fighting action. Certainly, not all of the CG is top notch, but most of the cinematography is, as is the soundtrack, and with veterans like Etsushi Toyokawa and Teruyki Kagawa keeping the young kids in check, there’s even some weight to the proceedings. The scenes that need a little something extra get it (the entire assassination scene, and better still, the entire funeral scene, just to name a few); this whole film – sorry, trilogy of films – moves like it has somewhere very specific it wants to be and knows precisely how to get there, no rambling, no wrong turns, just focus applied and effort expended. The pay off for the viewer makes for a wholly satisfying experience that really can’t be underrated. It’s basically a blast to watch, not a chore.
Which somewhat restores my faith – that an entertaining and coherent film can be made based on a manga series and that I’m not somehow penalised for not having read the manga in the first place. The migration of a story from one media to another should never be about the degradation of the core narrative. Yes, it’s got to be challenging making that change, but with a good script and smart decisions, the result can be an incarnation that stands strong on its own merits and surely does credit to its source. I’m holding on to 20th Century Boys as a shining example of what power in the right hands can obviously do.