Review: 20th Century Boys Trilogy
Review: 20th Century Boys Part 1
A group of kids in the 70s who would have secret meetings together in a makeshift clubhouse are reunited around 25 years later when strange things start happening. It appears that a new and increasingly powerful cult has come to prominence. What is important here is that a) The current situation appears frighteningly similar to the apocalyptic stories spun as an adolescent by Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa), and 2) Mysterious cult leader ‘Friend’ is more than likely one of his childhood inner circle. But who? Kenji is a former rock star now living the quiet life working at the family convenience store and looking after his missing sister’s daughter. When one of the old gang turns up dead and leaves some cryptic notes, Kenji decides to get the gang back together to work out just who ‘Friend’ is, and try to remember enough about his ‘Book of Prophecies’ to work out how to stop his end of the world plans. Etsushi Toyokawa plays Kenji’s grown-up best friend Otcho, Takako Tokiwa plays former tomboy Yukiji, who now works at airport customs with an eager but inept sniffer dog.
I guess I could give this 2008 Yukihiko Tsutsumi (“2LDK”, which was like “Single White Female” meets “Kill Bill vol. 1”) flick credit for one thing: It has me thinking about going back to the original Manga series by Naoki Urasawa, which would surely be vastly superior to this first instalment of the big-screen adaptation. Elements of the basic concept (which has a Stephen King’s “IT” or “Stand By Me” meets “V for Vendetta” vibe to it) are fascinating and cool. However, in trying to chop down 25 or so volumes of the story into three films, this film (covering about 7 of the volumes) ends up seriously choppy. It’s overly populated but underwritten, and occasionally confusing for newbies like me. This is especially so when you consider the film operates on three different timelines, with many, many characters to keep track of.
I just didn’t get into this film nearly as much as I would like, mostly due to narrative and character issues in the screenplay by Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, and Yûsuke Watanabe (who all scripted the next instalment). Perhaps the sequels will be better, but with such lack of depth to the characters, I felt like I hadn’t gotten to know them enough, given that the next two films will seemingly move on to the next generation of characters. If I’d read the Manga, I’m sure by the time I’d finished, I’d have felt satisfied in getting to know these characters fully, but here in this film treatment I felt like I was watching a chopped-down highlights package (that still runs well over two hours I might add) of the first series of a TV show in anticipation of the second season. In fact, given the amount of material in the original Manga, I think a TV series would’ve been a much better vehicle for this story. Compare that to say, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, where yes, the ending was just a set-up for the sequel, but anyone who watched that three hour film and came away undernourished is just too damn hard to please. This time, there was a definite argument to be made.
A shame, really, but there’s still some strong moments and themes throughout. You might not always have a handle on things, but I can’t say I was ever bored by it. The question is, how many people will care enough to watch the next one? I’m mildly curious at best myself. Oh, and good luck getting the T-Rex song out of your head. Good times, good times.
Review: 20th Century Boys Part 2
2015. Mysterious cult leader ‘Friend’ has ascended into the position of world leader, after supposed terrorist Kenji Endo unsuccessfully tried to save mankind on Bloody New Year’s Eve, some fifteen years ago. He is still missing and a wanted terrorist criminal. Kenji’s niece Kanna (Airi Taira) is now 18 and being watched over by Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa). However, she is the rebellious and stubborn sort, and seems hell bent on stopping ‘Friend’, and clearing her uncle’s good name. Meanwhile, Kenji’s best friend Otcho (Etsushi Toyokawa) is currently in prison, in a cell next to a young comic book geek imprisoned for creating a comic where the hero is eventually revealed to be the villain. Oh, and there’s something about a ‘New Book of Prophecies’, which goes even further than Kenji’s prescient boyhood doomsday fantasies come true. The book says a new saviour will rise but end up being assassinated for their efforts. Will this be the fate of Kanna? Or someone else? Haruka Kinami turns up as an adorable, bubble-headed classmate of Kanna’s who enters the Friend training facility with her. It is at this training camp that Kanna also learns a few things about her mother.
This 2009 Yukihiko Tsutsumi (“2LDK”, “20th Century Boys Part 1”) sequel to the 2008 Manga adaptation shares some of the first film’s problems, whilst improving on at least one thing. As such, that makes it not really any better or worse. It’s watchable like the first film, but the overabundance of characters (was the young cop really necessary?) and choppy narrative indicative of a wealth of material having to be chopped down, stop one from really getting into it. Fans of the Manga won’t mind so much, perhaps, but then again, maybe they wish the film included everything. I got a little lost far too early on, I couldn’t figure out why certain characters seemed to fear Kanna so much. Possible reason for that comes along eventually in the film, but far too late in the film not to be annoying, and I felt like at times I was watching something not just from the middle of a trilogy (which it is), but like I’d stumbled into the middle of the actual film. Eventual explanation or not, I’m still certain that there was something missing early on that was probably in the original Manga and helped one navigate their way through the story. Here I felt like I was thrown into the deep end with no warning...and man-eating piranha headed my way. This is why I really think this deserved a TV series treatment, not a trilogy of films. And it’s a shame, because I think the story being told in this middle entry is actually more interesting than the first, and Taira’s spunky Kanna is a pretty adorable heroine. But because of the choppiness and character clutter (Kanna and Otcho are the only fully developed characters, with Yukiji yet again given short shrift), it gets cut off at the knees, ultimately.
There’s also a problem in its mystery element that is unfortunately all this film’s own. I worked out who ‘Friend’ is fairly early in this one (and I’m not necessarily saying he gets revealed here, to those who haven’t seen the film, just that I myself worked it out), but perhaps that will be more a problem I end up having with the third film than this one (Having said that, I had fairly firm suspicions of this in the first film anyway). The one area that this film really does improve on the first film is that it doesn’t flip back and forth in time so much. So the narrative, whilst choppy and seemingly missing details, isn’t as confusing as it could’ve been in terms of its timeline.
Like the previous film, it’s watchable, with lots of interesting ideas and an appropriate eerie atmosphere. But I really think cinema is the wrong medium for this expansive material. Like last time, the screenplay is by Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Yûsuke Watanabe, who have surely tried their best to work this large amount of material (about 25 volumes or so) into three film screenplays, with minimal corruption to the source. I just think it’s too damn vast for the cinematic medium.
Review: 20th Century Boys Part 3: The Last Chapter- Our Flag
Set in 2017, two years after cult leader Friend did his best Jesus Christ impersonation to become the new God, and is now about to cause the end of the world, only allowing true believers to join him in safety. Meanwhile, freedom-fighter Kanna (Airi Taira) is leading an armed resistance against Friend and his followers. Also back to wrap things up are Kanna’s protectors, the brooding Otcho (Etsushi Toyokawa), and grown-up tomboy Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa). And then there’s another character who emerges from hiding (gee, I wonder who it could be?), as our protagonists attempt to ward off Friend’s doomsday. Who is Friend? What motivates him?
This is the film where you find it all out. Once again directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi and scripted by Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, and Yusuke Watanabe, this 2009 film is the final part in the trilogy based on the popular Manga. In some ways it’s the best of the series, in that it is by far the easiest to follow. That doesn’t mean it’s free of confusion, but there is certainly less of that. However, it has other problems that once again prevent me from fully embracing this story. It’s such a shame because I’ve really tried to get into it, given there are elements that are fascinating.
The opening section of the film is a bit of a chore because it goes over events that we already saw at the end of the previous film. I understand that some may not have seen the second film, but surely if you’re watching the third film, you will be doing so after having seen the first two. Otherwise, why bother? And why in the hell are Otcho and the comic book geek from the previous film escaping from prison again? It had me a bit confused as to whether this was a flashback or they simply got arrested again. I thought it was like “Groundhog Day” or something. I also once again felt that some of these characters were extraneous, especially the young police officer and his side story, which get given such short shrift this time that I can’t work out why it’s even in the film.
And to be perfectly honest, once Friend’s entire plot and his motives are revealed here, I actually felt a little insulted. Here I was after three films, and this is the reason you give me for why ‘Friend’ is doing what he’s doing? It seemed a bit juvenile. And that actually had me realising just how juvenile the whole story is given it all boils down to schoolyard politics and children’s’ alien invasion fantasies, that play out in the real adult world rather violently and devastatingly. It made the ‘Friend’ character awfully fatuous, to be honest. I mean, get over it, dude. You’ve got all these smarts and wonderfully devious doomsday plans but yet you cry like a whiny bitch ‘coz no one liked you when you were a kid? Really? Don’t pick on someone ‘coz they might one day plot to destroy the world? I know what they were aiming for, but after three films that run over two hours each, I was expecting something more substantial and epic in stature. Perhaps that was my problem for not quite getting in the right mindset (I haven’t read the Manga, for starters). Although I had worked out something very important about Friend’s identity very early on in the previous film, when you actually do find out his specific identity here, it’s a massive letdown. I mean, who was he again? After all the names and faces we’ve come across in the three films, I lost track. And I watched them all in just three weeks total!
I also felt that, like in the previous film, the time-travel aspect of the film seemed half-baked and tacked-on. It probably sounds like I really didn’t like any of these films, and maybe even liked this one the least. That isn’t true, all three films are interesting and watchable, if hard to follow at times. This one for me was the best, simply due to the relatively easy to follow narrative. There’s not nearly as much switching back and forth to different eras here, as the film is pretty much headed in one direction. I also think the film boasts the best special FX in the series. Imagery-wise, it’s pretty interesting to look at, no doubt. And once again, all of the performances are perfectly fine, especially Taira and Toyokawa and Kanna and Otcho, respectively.
Sorry to all you fans out there, but I’m just not on your wavelength. This series is OK, but seriously flawed. The final chapter might be the best, but I still found it underwhelming in the end.