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The epic Japanese “20th Century Boys” trilogy, based upon the hugely popular manga by Urasawa Naoki, continues with its second instalment, “The Last Hope”. Director Tsutsumi Yukihiko (previously responsible for cult hits such as “2LDK” and “Forbidden Siren”) returns to continue the sprawling tale, with the action again leaping around between different decades and generations, following the characters as they try to prevent the impending self prophesised apocalypse. With the original cast reprising their roles and with even more special effects and grand narrative adventure, the film was unsurprisingly another box office hit on its domestic release, leaving fans even more excited for the final chapter.
The film begins in 2015, with the events which took place at the end of the first film now being referred to as ‘Bloody New Years Eve’ and with the mysterious Friend having expanded his influence and empire. Most of the characters from the first film have been branded terrorists and have either disappeared or are in prison, with the fate of Kenji Endo (Karasawa Toshiaki, also in “Casshern”) being unknown. The film basically revolves around his niece Kanna (Taira Airi, “Arch Angels”), a student who works in a Chinese restaurant in her spare time, while threatening to follow in her rebellious uncle’s footsteps. Determined to clear Kenji’s name, she enlists in the creepy ‘Friend Land’ indoctrination program to try and uncover the face behind his mask. At the same time, the ‘New Book of Prophecies’ foretells that a saviour will arise at a church in Shinjuku, only to be struck down by an assassin, a message which Friend is only too willing to kill to keep secret. Meanwhile, Occho (Toyokawa Etsushi, recently in Takashi Miike’s “The Great Yokai War”) escapes from prison and rejoins the other fugitives, planning to stop Friend by any means necessary.
As should be expected by anyone who has seen the first film or any fans of the manga, this synopsis barely scratches the surface of “The Last Hope”, which amongst other things also manages to pack in transvestites, mafia turf wars, killer viruses and messianic conspiracies. As with the original, the action jumps around between various time periods, taking place in 1970, 2000, 2002 and 2015, making for a truly piece of cinema, which is at the same time strangely intimate and resolutely character driven. Indeed, the film’s best assets are arguably its cast, whose roles have been built up slowly but surely, and the work invested in the first film in fleshing them out really starts to pay off here. Things may still be a bit bewildering for some viewers, simply due to the sheer number of different people and plots it cycles through, though Tsutsumi Yukihiko continues to do a stalwart job of capturing not only the scope, but also the feel of the source material.
The film is gripping and engaging throughout, and even though it clocks in at a not short two hours and twenty minutes, it could have comfortably been even longer. The narrative is not only ambitious and complex, but is also surprisingly clever, often threatening to tackle some pretty lofty themes as it moves into apocalyptic territory. At the same time, it remains obtuse and endearingly daft, not least since it basically charts the whole world coming to bow at the feet of a man with a strange bag mask covering his head. Unsurprisingly, Yukihiko throws in plenty of revelations and hints at what is to come, though the film still stands on its own two feet and is by no means mere filler material.
The film features more action that its predecessor, with shoot outs, assassinations and fight scenes keeping things exciting and moving along at a fast pace. Yukihiko makes great use of futuristic technology, which is worked seamlessly into the film rather than being saved for gimmicky set pieces or ‘look at me’ moments. The overall effect is surprisingly subtle, with touches like the threads of light being played with by students or the omnipresent airships that lurk over Tokyo resulting in a wholly believable and immersive vision, and a world that basically looks like the world of today, if slightly upgraded.
The only real problem with “The Last Hope” is that, perhaps inevitably, as the second part of the trilogy, it leaves audiences without any real answers and desperate to see what happens next. Of course, this in itself isn’t really a criticism, and the film is easily one of the most enjoyable and finely crafted blockbusters from Japan in recent years that should be enjoyed by all viewers, manga fans or not.
Yukihiko Tsutsumi (director) / Naoki Urasawa (manga), Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Yûsuke Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Toshiaki Karasawa … Kenji ‘Kenji’ Endo
Etsushi Toyokawa … Choji ‘Occho’ Ochiai
Takako Tokiwa … Yukiji ‘Yukiji’ Setoguchi
Muneyoshi Abiko … Young Yamane
Hirofumi Araki … Britney
Arata … The Thirteenth