What makes (or breaks) a movie based on a book—or in this case, manga—is how well it’s adapted from the source material. Authors have a bit more leeway than scriptwriters. A novel or comic series can be as long as needed to create complex story arcs and in-depth characterization whereas a movie has a 2-3 hour time limit. Things are going to get left out. Characters are going to be merged. Plot arcs that span two or three volumes will be condensed into a five-second scene. When it’s done well, only the nitpicky purist complains. When it’s done poorly, everyone complains. When it’s half-way there, fans of the original source material feel unsatisfied and the uninitiated are left scratching their heads. And that’s unfortunately what you get with “20th Century Boys: The Last Hope.”
The second film picks up 15 years after Kenji’s showdown with the mysterious Friend, who has now taken credit for saving the world and demonized Kenji as a heinous terrorist. His niece Kanna (Airi Taira) is now a disgruntled high schooler determined to clear her beloved uncle’s name. Kenji’s friends are scattered—Otcho rots in jail while Yoshitsune becomes a resistance leader and Yukiji acts as a mother figure to Kanna. It’s unknown where Kenji is or if he survived the final blast, but in his absence, he too has been raised to an almost mythical status among society’s fringe thanks to Kanna’s hero worship. The film’s convoluted plot revolves around discovering Friend’s true identity, and some new characters are dumped into the mix. Kanna is revealed to be the film’s eponymous “last hope,” but it’s rather hard to see why. In the manga, she’s just as charismatic as her uncle and is the de facto protagonist of the story’s second arc. In the film, she’s reduced to being a plot vehicle. Sure, she’s Friend’s love child, punches the bad guys and has a cool hairstyle. She also shares his ability to bend spoons with her mind, a fact that is shoved in your face and then promptly forgotten. But…that’s it.
The second film has the unenviable burden of bridging the first and last films in the trilogy. Not only does it have to continue where the first film left off, but it also has to be compelling enough to entice viewers to come back for the third. Put bluntly, it doesn’t really work. The problems of the first film—poor pacing, cheesy acting, and condensation over adaptation—are amplified. It’s as if director Yukihiko Tsutsumi took his actors, shoved the manga into their faces and said, “That’s the exact facial expression I want you to make.” That’s okay for comic books, but in movies, cartoony acting only makes you painfully aware you’re watching a film; it’s impossible to get engrossed in the story. Speaking of which, the film also suffers from disjointed plot lines. Why should I care that Detective Chono is the grandson of the cop who was killed in one random scene in the first movie? What’s the overall point of following Kanna’s ditzy classmate Koizumi to Friend Land? Why is Kanna involved in gang wars and what’s the deal with the ex-gangster priest? It’s been some years since I read the manga, and I had a hard time filling in some of the blanks. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who hasn’t read it at all.
The main problem is that the film is either too faithful an adaptation, or maybe the screenwriters had no idea of what to cut and what to keep. The result is a bunch of really awesome scenes from the manga are kept in, but ultimately fall flat. What should have been Otcho’s epic prison break is a throwaway scene that takes about three seconds. On the other hand, his dramatic entrance at the church to save Kanna is pretty cool. A lot of Koizumi’s scenes are iffy acting-wise, but the sequence at Friend Land is probably the best part in the entire film. Friend…is still an enigma wrapped in a mystery, but somehow isn’t all that threatening despite the fact he wants to destroy the world. Maybe all these loose threads and problems will all come together in the third film. But probably not.