Remember those childhood games you played with your school friends when you were younger? The ones where you formed a secret club, made secret passwords and symbols, and then saved the world from a catastrophic evil—all from the tree house in your backyard? Imagine if 30 years later those “games” started coming true, and the key to saving the world lay hidden in your childhood memories. Half science-fiction, half supernatural thriller, Naoki Urasawa’s (Monster) sprawling manga series “20th Century Boys” is one of the best contemporary manga series to date—think Stephen King’s “It” (minus the creepy clown) with a distinctly Japanese twist.
So does the 2008 live-action film trilogy adaptation live up to the original series? Well, yes and no. Like Zach Snyder’s “Watchmen,” 20th Century Boys certainly looks the part. With a budget topping 6 billion yen (~$73 million), 20th Century Boys was one of the largest undertakings of the Japanese movie industry as a whole. I’d venture that most of that went into the special effects and finding the most perfect looking 300 or so cast members possible. It’s slightly frightening how much the onscreen actors look like they were picked off the page and thrown up onto the silver screen.
The first film covers volumes 1-5 of the manga, and it does a great job of easing you viewers into the life of main protagonist Kenji Endo, a washed up rock’n’roll musician taking care of his niece Kanna while running a convenience store. After the death of his childhood friend “Donkey,” Kenji begins to find a strange, but oddly familiar symbol popping up all over Tokyo. The movie, like the manga, flashes back and forth between his present and childhood to unravel the mysteries connecting Kenji’s childhood games and a mysterious cult leader known simply as “Friend.” However, this is where the movie starts to falter. Urasawa’s original plot is extremely intricate, and even the bit characters are extremely well developed. That’s a lot harder to do within the confines of a 142-minute movie. Many fan-favorite characters get only 2 or 3 seconds of screen time without much exposition, and I found myself having to fill in a lot of blanks. It’s hard to imagine someone with no knowledge of the manga would be able to concretely follow what’s going on or even who’s who and why they should care.
The first film also suffers from some pacing issues. While the first 30 minutes are great, once the novelty of seeing these characters onscreen fades, the film short of plods along for the majority of the film before ratcheting up for a well-paced third act. But it’s in this plodding second act that the movie’s weaknesses become really clear. The film’s script could have definitely used some streamlining to highlight the overall relationship between the main group of characters. As it stands, it’s pretty obvious who the “traitor” in the group is, simply because his relationship to everyone else probably ended up on the cutting room floor. The other issue plaguing the film is some corny acting from its main cast. Toshiaki Karasawa (Kenji Endo) in particular was supremely disappointing; he may look the part, but his high pitched squeals and screams also make an awesome character somewhat irritating. Also, there were too many cheesy “Friends forever!” moments that were overacted and ultimately took away from what should be moving scenes. However, the third act picks up the pace again and the scene of a teenage Kanna running away from the fuzz is enough to send chills up any 20th Century Boys fan. If you’re already a fan, this is definitely a movie to check out. If you aren’t, read the manga first.