20th Century Boys (2008) Movie Review

“20th Century Boys” has been one of the most eagerly anticipated events in Japanese cinema for some time. The adaptation of the best selling 24 volume manga by Naoki Urasawa is to be made into a trilogy of films, with a massive total budget of 6 billion yen, setting a new record for the industry. Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi (who boasts a eclectic CV, including the likes of “Sushi King Goes to New York”, “Forbidden Siren” and “2LDK”), the first part ranked as one of the biggest box office hits in Japan in 2008, leaving fans desperately awaiting the next instalment. The film has now been released on region 2 DVD by 4Digital Asia in a two disc version with a whole host of extras including several documentaries and a book on the film’s production.

The film stars Toshiaki Karasawa (also in “Casshern”) as Kenji Endo, who back in 1973 along with a group of classmates recorded their superhero end of the world fantasises in their ‘Book of Prophecies’. Fast forward to the very end of the 20th century, and Kenji and his friends are all grown up and living normal lives with jobs, families and responsibilities. A mysterious religious cult led by the masked ‘Friend’ is taking over Tokyo, and seemingly the world, using the old symbol which he and his gang used as children. Things get even more sinister when the world is shaken by a series of terrorist attacks which follow the chain of events detailed in ‘Book of Prophecies’. After meeting again at a high school reunion, Kenji and the others begin to investigate, trying to stop the final doomsday prediction from coming true on the eve of the new millennium.

As the first part of a sprawling trilogy that takes place across different continents and variously in the 1960s through to 2015, and that features a vast cast of characters at different stages of their lives, “20th Century Boys” inevitably spends a considerable amount of its running time setting the scene. Even so, the first hour or so of the film may well prove somewhat bewildering for viewers as it jumps around through time and through its many players. However this proves not only necessary, but a wise move, both in terms of it being a faithful adaptation of the source material, and in terms of the later narrative payoff.

Indeed, the time spent establishing the characters and charting their development from youngsters to believable adults is crucial to the film’s success and to director Tsutsumi’s creation of a convincing world and historical backdrop. It helps that the characters are all interesting, if a little sketchy, and that Kenji makes for a winning protagonist, with his journey from easy-going though rather useless convenience store clerk to wanted international terrorist being an engaging one. The story itself, although slow to start, is an imaginative one, with plenty of mysteries and revelations obviously waiting in the wings.

As a result, when the pace picks up in the second act, with plenty of explosions and action set pieces, the viewer is already deeply immersed in the story and actually cares about the fates of the characters. Although it doesn’t quite manage to convince on a global scale, with incidents in other countries being largely reported in the background, both the rise of the cult and of the various attacks on cities build effectively in intensity to give a sense of the coming apocalypse. The last half hour, which comes complete with giant flying machines and robot destruction, is spectacular and thrilling, and the film comes to a breathless, well handled conclusion. Unsurprisingly, the ending doesn’t really solve much or answer any of the film’s many enigmas, and this does leave the viewer both excited and frustrated, being left to await the next instalment.

There have been a number of high profile manga adaptations from Japan in recent years, notably the “Death Note” series, though even after just one film, “20th Century Boys” already looks to be the genre’s crowning achievement. A superb piece of epic, imaginative story-telling, it makes for entertaining viewing even for those who have not read the original manga and the potentially even more explosive follow-up is awaited with bated breath.

Yukihiko Tsutsumi (director) / Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Naoki Urasawa, Yûsuke Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Toshiaki Karasawa … Kenji ‘Kenji’ Endo
Etsushi Toyokawa … Choji ‘Occho’ Ochiai
Takako Tokiwa … Yukiji ‘Yukiji’ Setoguchi
Ichiya Anzai … Young Maruo
Arata … Masao Tamura

Buy 20th Century Boys on DVD