20th Century Boys 17

March 13, 2012

Naoki Urasawa – Viz – 2011 – 24 volumes

I’ve fallen a few volumes behind on this series, which is shameful. It’s such a compelling story. I also like that it’s slowly drifted into post-apocalypse territory, but is free of the usual manga stereotypes I associate with these types of stories. Then again, being like other series is not something 20th Century Boys has ever done.

This is a relatively quiet volume, mostly about the living conditions under the new Friends regime again, though the story is building up to some action. What kind of action, I’m not sure. The narrative locates both Kanna and Otcho, though they are not yet together. We learn of an August date for action against the Friends, though it looks like it might be a hopeless exercise. Sanae and her brother Katsuo are still fleeing the government as political dissidents, which is hilarious to me since they are children being chased by a Defense Force wearing gas masks and singing about space aliens. But the Defense Force is no joke, and part of the story is also about how they kill in cold blood. A couple parts of the story are about that, in fact. While this sounds like run-of-the-mill action fodder in theory, the scenes where the Defense Force executes “criminals” are most heartbreaking. Urasawa has done a fine job of writing a modern totalitarian-style environment that doesn’t feel futuristic at all. Somehow, actually, it feels quite old-fashioned, since feudal lord systems also seem to be in place. It’s interesting, though I’m not sure how much more of it we’re going to see.

We also learn about Otcho’s years outside Tokyo, and how the “quarantined” citizens that were exiled after the virus outbreak live. Most of these people were arbitrarily shipped out to the country, and none of them are actually infected. Nonetheless, what looks like a group of people trying to cope and do the best they can among one another turns ugly whenever a vaccine shows up in a town. This neighbor-against-neighbor desperation violence even upsets the stoic Otcho.

The end of the volume, though. I’m not sure how, but frequently these books save the best for last. Koizumi reappears, and she re-discovers her boy band crush from the pre-Friend days. He’s singing a song. A song that he didn’t write, but claims someone taught him one night at the intersection in Nishi-Nippori. You know. A crossroads. The stranger’s name? Akuma.

Excellent. The story hams this up just about as much as it possibly can, and I love every page of it. I suspect this particular plot point won’t actually be relevant for some time. But the song in question is an anthem for the resistance, even without the presence of the original performer.

What I like best about this series, though, is that it isn’t really overly-complicated. I didn’t really care for Monster much because, though I read the whole thing straight through when all the volumes were out, I still had trouble keeping track of all the side-characters and subplots, and that was so important to that series. There’s a lot of stuff going on in 20th Century Boys, but it doesn’t overwhelm. Most of it is fairly organic, and isn’t that far removed from the most major events in the series. Every single detail doesn’t stick in my memory, but all of it relates back to something big I do remember, and it falls into place after that.

Part of it, too, might just be that all the stuff going on is so crazy in the context of a relatively serious and grounded storyline. There’s nothing that unusual about the dystopian society or the dissidents in 20th Century Boys. What is noteworthy is that the organization is called the Friends, and that they rose to power based on a children’s game of make-believe from the 70s. 20th Century Boys makes you believe that the Friends really could have come into power by building a crappy giant robot that they rampaged through the city with. And it’s more than believable when the Friend “comes back to life” and saves the Pope. It’s the over-the-top details like those in the serious and well-written context that makes 20th Century Boys special.

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