A group of kids dream up a disastrous series of events and catalog them all in a ratty notebook. Decades later, it all comes true as a cult leader calling himself ‘Friend’ appears wearing a white mask with a very familiar symbol emblazoned on it. Now in their 30’s, the friends reunite to realize that they are living some bizarre nightmare come true, but to everyone else it makes perfect sense.
I have been reading about this manga and film series for a few weeks and have decided to fill in the uninitiated as it may not have reached everyone it should have.
The famous manga series by Naoki Urasawa is in many ways a modern epic about modern life and the loss of youth. As a comic book reader, I filled many an after school afternoon with friends reading comics in the living room over pizza then dreaming up crazy scenarios in the back yard, usually involving white phosphorous and GI Joe action figures. 20th Century Boys really speaks to that experience.
To my teenage coca cola and pizza-addled brain it appeared that Johnny Rotten was right, there was no future. The modern world was born out of war into opulence and was full of promise as humanity developed technology that matched their courage, reaching for the stars and beyond, but it all came to naught in the empty decades that followed. Space was found to be empty and the same technology that once promised a space-age lifestyle that could rival Buck Rogers was instead used to entertain an increasingly sedentary and hopeless generation.
Comic book writer and modern day classical poet Stan Lee put it better than I ever could in his Silver Surfer series. In the comic, a young and brilliant Norrin Radd looked around him and saw that the struggles of his forefathers had bought him a life of complacent boredom. There was simply nothing to do. Luckily the planet devouring being named Galactus arrived, providing an opportunity for Radd to rise to the challenge and play the hero by sacrificing himself.
In real life, it’s not so easy… In my own experience of the modern world through comics, TV and film, it’s no real surprise that a rise in violence occurred as the future appeared bleaker with each passing day. It appeared that after all of our accomplishments as a people that the only thing left to do was blow ourselves up in global war.
In 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa looks at his world both through the eyes of a child and later those of a jaded adult. The arrival of near apocalypse is almost a relief as it hints at something fantastic just out of reach. Of course it’s actually a dousing of chemicals on an unsuspecting crowd of people… but it is definitely something ‘other.’ Much like the charismatic ‘Friend,’ there is an influence from the same place that once gave the characters a wild imaginative vision taking hold in the realm of the real.
Naoki Urasawa’s manga series draws its influence from the author’s own childhood and pays homage to anime and western pop music (such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex) throughout. In 2008, a film trilogy was crafted by director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Happily Ever After). Very closely adapting the manga, the film was hailed by fans of the original material and is regaled as a classic. A hefty 2.5 hours each, these films are not for the weak, but if all of this sounds like it is right up your alley, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.