20th Century Boys, vols. 1 & 2 by Naoki Urasawa – review

20TH CENTURY BOYS, vols. 1 & 2 by Naoki Urasawa
Viz Media, 2009, 210 pages, 978-1-59116-922-2, Paperback, $12.99
Viz Media, 2009, 206 pages, 978-1-59116-926-0, Paperback, $12.99

Genre: Manga/Science Fiction/Mystery20thcenturyboys01

Having been a Naoki Urasawa fan from the moment I saw the first episode of Monster back in 2005, I was incredibly excited to find out that 20th Century Boys was receiving a U.S. manga release. Thanks to Viz Media, we now have not one, but three Naoki Urasawa titles available in the States (Monster, 20th Century Boys, and Pluto), and I couldn’t be more ecstatic. In fact, I’d even go so far as to humbly apologize to Viz, in general, for the amount of ridicule I privately heaped upon them for all of their errors back in the late 90s. Of course, that was before anyone really knew what manga was, and when all you could get in the store were titles like Dragonball Z, Inu Yasha, and Banana Fish, so no one really noticed when they got something wrong.

But three Urasawa titles? All forgiven.

I’ve heard 20th Century Boys described as a science fiction mystery, and I suppose I can understand why. Of course, having only read the first two volumes, I can really only speculate as to what’s going to happen. But true to Urasawa’s style, the implication is that it’s going to be something massive and amazing and potentially mind-blowing.

Maybe I’m hyping it up too much, but given how much I respect this author, I feel I have good reason.

The main character, Kenji, lives an ordinary life running a King Mart with his mother and looking after his sister’s infant daughter. Excitement isn’t exactly a part of his day to day life, and he certainly doesn’t have the time to go looking for it. But when a domino effect of unexplained events begins—including the disappearance of a university professor, the death of an old school friend, and the sudden outbreak of a viral epidemic—Kenji finds himself just as involved as anyone else. Central to all of these occurances is a symbol that Kenji finds familiar but can’t quite identify, and a cult whose leader is known only as the “friend.” Somehow these events are tied into Kenji’s childhood, but after so many years he can’t quite figure out how, exactly, it all fits together.

20thcenturyboys02It took me a little while to figure out what was really happening in 20th Century Boys, as the beginning of the manga is a bit slow, and the timeline changes between two or three different years. Granted, the book informs you of what year you’re reading about, but, all the same, flashbacks (or flashforwards) can be occassionally disconcerting in any medium. It’s all build up, of course, and you get your first real taste of what’s to come at the end of volume one. By the end of volume two, most of the major players have had an introduction of sorts, and you can begin to theorize as to the shape the story is going to take.

It’s all very mysterious and sinister, but since Urasawa is the king of sinister, one could hardly expect anything else.

I’m interested in Kenji, the main character, because he’s at the other end of the spectrum when compared to Dr. Tenma from Monster. Tenma was a successful doctor, on his way to achieving everything he’d ever wanted, when he was thrust into a complex series of events. Kenji, by contrast, is just an average guy with his own personal issues who is barely making it by running the King Mart convenience store. He, of course, is being asked to rise above his ordinary life to achieve something, whereas Tenma had to turn his back on everything he had in order to chase the monster that was haunting him. All very intriguing to me, and I’m already seeing the changes in Kenji’s character that promise to make him a great protagonist.

This is also one of those stories that takes every moment of background and ties it into everything that’s happening at the present moment. I love stories like that, because the intricate weaving of plot, when done well, can be fantastic. It also means that you can’t trust any of the characters, because who knows what part they really play. I’ve already been surprised no less than twice, and that was just in volume two.

20th Century Boys promises to be an excellent and engaging series. Volume three comes out on June 16th, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

~

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