Cool Things: 20th Century Boys

Manga – those comics which we Americans, being unable to produce many visual narratives outside of the comics pages and the superhero genre, import from Japan to help fill out our graphic novel shelves. Whether you love it or hate it, manga is a phenomenon in America today. But if all you’re familiar with is the mainstream stuff you may wonder what the big deal is. If so, I suggest you look into 20th Century Boys. It may broaden your horizons a little.

Naoki Urasawa is a manga-ka, or manga artist, of some fame in Japan. He’s tackled a wide variety of genres and consistently delivered a high quality of art and story, when he was the author of the story (even when he wasn’t, he collaborated with people who knew what they were about.)

20th Century Boys may be one of his most impressive in scope and themes. It is nothing more or less than a tribute to the days when it was possible to save the world.

For Endo Kenji, living in 1969 meant rock and roll, moon landings and a new age for humanity. For a handful of young boys, it was an exciting era. It was a time to dream of growing into successful and impossibly cool adults and, when the turn of the century came in thirty years, it would undoubtedly mean a coming apocalypse that could only be averted by the actions of brave men like they will undoubtedly be by then. Kenji and his friends spent the summer daydreaming about what could be, and writing down their future adventures in crudely drawn and lettered books, buried away to be excavated by their future selves when the time was right. Among them, a story of how the world would end, and how they would prevent it.

For Endo Kenji, living in 1997 meant struggling to keep the family store open, looking after the niece his sister hand unexpectedly left with them before disappearing a few years before and trying to keep in touch with just one or two of his old friends. There’s no time for daydreams. With three people to keep fed and a corporate manager to appease, there’s time for little else. No rock and roll, very little technology and absolutely no heroics.

That is, until one of the family’s long standing customers turns up missing. When Kenji goes to retrieve the last delivery he had made, he spots a symbol that takes him thirty years back. A symbol of friendship between young boys. A symbol that says, ‘we are friends’.

But that’s not what it means anymore. One of Kenji’s old friends never quite grew up. Never put the toys behind him. He’s set out to bring their predictions of the end of the world to life, even if he has to play the villain himself. He’s charismatic and he’s rounded up a cult of followers, calling himself ‘Friend’ and quietly maneuvering himself into a position to wreak havoc. Kenji and his friends, as the only people who know the doomsday plan in it’s entirety and will take the danger it poses seriously, have to figure out who Friend is and stop his plans.

Kenji isn’t the supercool adult he planned to be. He’s not prepared or equipped to fight or persuade. But the world needs a hero, even if his only qualification is convenience store clerk.

The themes that run through 20th Century Boys are at once simple and deep. A typical shonen, or boy’s comic in Japan focuses on themes of friendship, hard work towards goals and eventual victory. Urasawa takes these themes and makes them his own by adding one more: the passing of time.

His story grapples with friendships not just as they are formed but as they grow, falter and sometimes lapse. By covering a span of over fifty years (the manga eventually looks forward into the 21st century) Urasawa gives his characters incredible richness as we watch them age from naïve young boys to struggling and disillusioned men and into grim but purposeful middle age. In spite of the disagreements and distance that often comes between them their deep and heartfelt friendship endures over time, a stark contrast to the superficial charm of their nemesis.

By the same token, the goal Kenji sets with his friends, to save the world, is almost ludicrous in scope. But at the same time, we see what happens to these people when they give in and accept that their ludicrous goals have to be set aside so that they can ‘get by’ in the world. They diminish. They are demeaned. They learn few truly useful lessons and they struggle through day by day, slowly loosing touch with themselves and the people in their lives. Only when their worthy cause is returned to them do they revive, grow and become the men they wanted to be.

It’s tempting to dismiss comics as just frivolity, a few pretty pictures, with no real depth or power to them. And if you transfer them from one culture to another, surely they must loose even more of what little meaning they had. But in 20th Century Boys, Urasawa has written a powerful critique of leaving the big goals behind in exchange for the day to day and remindeds us that friendships are what we make of them. Read it, and it may change your perspective for good.

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