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The recently opened New People building in San Francisco's Japantown boasts a brand spanking new theatre, Viz Cinema, and inaugurated its opening with the premiere of the live-action (and musical) 20th Century Boys trilogy.
Recently, I relocated to the Bay Area, and one of the prime reasons I was excited about living here was the opening of the New People building in San Francisco's Japantown, which also included the opening of Viz Cinema, a theater at the bottom floor of the structure that would showcase popular and fresh Japanese feature films and documentaries. For the big opening, Viz decided to put inaugurate their first month with the theme "Manga Attack" and have the 20th Century Boys trilogy sit at the center of their showcase, which included the world premiere of the third and final installment of 20th Century Boys.
In 2007, when the 20th Century Boys trilogy was first announced, fans and critics alike pondered how director Yukihiko Tsutumi (Memories of Tomorrow and the upcoming BECK adaptation) would handle adapting the 22-volume manga into three separate films. The answer? In true fashion of the film adaptations, he would have to do an immense amount of cutting, leaving him with having to give the audience his own version of 20th Century Boys. While I can sit here and tell you whether or not he does a fantastic job of staying true to the manga, that's something I'm not going to do. Instead, we have to look at the tools Tsutumi uses to most effectively give the audience the story of Naoki Urasawa's well-received manga in a way that only film can do -- namely, through its use of song.
One of the main devices behind 20th Century Boys is the music. It acts as a great stand-alone soundtrack, but both Urasawa and Tsutumi used music to move the plot. T-Rex's 1973 hit song "20th Century Boy" was chosen as the theme song to the trilogy and maintains a key role in the plot behind the film. Like Urasawa before him, who drew inspiration from the song to create his story, Tsutumi relies on the power of music to lure us in. During the opening scene of the first film, 20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End, Tsutumi's frame-by-frame portrayal mimics Urasawa's first couple of pages, but it is the T-Rex song that sets the tone for the rest of the film. It begs the question, "What the hell is a 20th Century boy?"
Or perhaps, more like, "What the hell is this movie about?"
The story introduces us to Kenji Endo (Toshiaki Karasawa), a former rock'n'roller-turned-convenience store owner who also takes on the role of surrogate father to his baby niece, Kanna, after his sister left him with the job of caring after her. Kenji's life is pretty peaceful up until some strange incidents start taking place: a professor and his entire family go missing from their neighborhood, and a college student is murdered. At a class reunion, Kenji meets with some of his childhood friends, Yoshitune (Teruyuki Kagawa), Fukubei (Sasaki Kuranosuke), and Maruo (Hidehiko Ishizuka), and joins in on a hot topic: there are rumors of the emergence of a cult led by a man named "Tomodachi" (friend), who uses a foreboding symbol. Fukubei mentions to Kenji that the symbol is from their childhood -- in fact, more specifically, a book that Kenji created, called "The Book of Prophecy". Kenji relates back to his memories in 1969, when he and his friends built an underground hideout which they declared to be their secret base -- a place for them to spend their days together. As young boys with wild imaginations, they organize their gang as the future heroes of a made-up scenario, where a villainous organization tries to destroy the world and wipe out mankind. As events ensue, Kenji has a frightening realization that the events from "The Book of Prophecy" are coming true, and he must organize his friends to put a stop to it. By the end of the first film, the momentousness "Bloody New Year's Massacre" takes place and wipes out a huge part of Tokyo.
The second film, 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope fast forwards to fifteen years following the massacre and instead of Kenji as the lead, we have his niece, Kanna Endo (Airi Taira), in his place instead. Kanna becomes the key figure in developing the story, as she uncovers secrets about herself and the past of her uncle Kenji and his friends. Finally, in the third and final film, 20th Century Boys 3: Redemption, everything comes together, and all the questions are finally answered.
Continuing with the idea of music being a strong plot device in the film, Tsutumi uses Kenji's status as a former member of a rock and roll band as the one piece of hope throughout the entire film. While Kenji practically does not appear at all in the second film, Kanna uses the recorded tune from before the Bloody New Year's Massacre as a symbol of Kenji's spirit and memory, and later, the same tune represents the fact that Kenji is still alive. The song gives everyone courage while standing in the face of the destruction of mankind desired by Tomodachi. Both Kenji's farewell song and "20th Century Boys" are songs that not only tells us, the audience, the feelings and emotions behind the story, but also act as tools to connect various characters back to Kenji, including the antagonist, Tomodochi.
Tsutumi gives the audience a lot to work with here, as flashbacks and memories play a huge factor in this tale. In this case, we're given a story of epic proportions: a grandiose plot that spans over 30 years, with characters we get to watch grow and change over the course of the three films. The movie had called upon for a cast of 300 actors and actresses to reflect the characters at different ages. On Tsutumi's part, it's a miraculous effort to watch over such a huge cast, but at the same time, be able to make sure the young and old actors convey a wide range of emotions.
So, the question still stands. What is a "20th Century boy"? Urasawa and Tsutumi both effectively use Tomodachi and Kenji as saviors of the 21st Century. While both characters stand as two human beings with separate missions that pit them to square off against each other. They are seen as heroes by different people, and both use music to garner a following behind them (although Tomodachi depends also on his elaborate scheme as a whole). Both men obtain godlike-qualities, though they appear to be just simple men: boys who grew up in the twentieth century.
Date Posted: 9/4/2009