Hello TAY! I'm Jamesem92, Kotaku reader and frequent lurker here on TAY. I've noticed that both Kotaku and TAY are full of anime chat and reviews, along with the same for Western Comics, but even though there's the odd mention of manga news on the main site and a bit of discussion over here, I never see any reviews. I thought I'd make my first post here and try to start a sort of manga review series. This wouldn't be the newest hit series but just whatever I've picked to read and I'll do a write up when I finish, so I'm calling it the "Out of Date Manga Review". I tend to stick to finished series, though I have pretty varied taste so hopefully I'll read something you like (and if anyone's there to recommend a series, I'll be asking for that eventually!) and hopefully it can start a discussion amongst those that have read it and work as a proper review to those that haven't. I'll be using the "Good/mixed/bad" format of the anime reviews on the main page, so that should be familiar. Anyway this time it's "20th Century Boys"! (By the way, I'll be keeping these as spoiler free as possible.)
Author: Naoki Urasawa
Volumes: 24 (22 + 2 titled 21st Century Boys)
Genre: Mystery, thriller.
20th Century boys is considered by some to be the magnum opus of mangaka legend Naoki Urasawa (though some would make the argument for "Monster"). Through the 24 volumes a peculiar story is carefully laid, one that if read slowly can be infuriating in all the right ways. Urasawa manages a tale of high stakes, while keeping it highly personal by reflecting his background and passions.
The premise of 20th Century Boys is a unique tale, told in a fashion that keeps the reader guessing for as long as possible. It's the story of Kenji and his gang of friends, children of Japan in the 70s, who have a hideout made of grass in a field. There they read manga, listen to the radio and write their own story - The Book of Prophecy. This crazy tale of a League of Evil, who attempt to destroy the world and are thwarted by heroes of justice, sounds insane to them as adults but when one of their old friends seemingly commits suicide, Kenji discovers a strange cult lead by the enigmatic 'friend', who seems to be slowly making it come true.
The story is pulled forward by a range of mysteries that seem to grow and divide throughout. You'll be dying to see characters that have been hidden from you, know secret identities and learn about events that the characters themselves know little about. The story is told in a non-linear fashion and skips between various points in the past, the present and occasionally the future. Urasawa uses this to show you exactly what you need to know in each moment and, especially in the first half, uses it to keep the story feeling razor sharp and tight. To add to this, you are promised a deadline early on, that it gradually climbs towards to add the heavy weight of suspense.
If you're the kind to read your manga slowly, you're going to be cursing the end of each chapter that leaves you with another clue but no answer and I can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for the readers of "Big Comic Spirits" as they waited for the next issue to come out.
The setting flits between Tokyo in 1970 and the 90s, where the protagonists are aged 10 and in their 30s respectively. Naoki Urasawa was born in 1960 and I imagine this is no coincidence. His choice of the setting he grew up in comes across as highly personal with the intimate group of friends and the issues and topics of conversation that would have concerned many children of Japan in that time. The tale is littered with references to manga and anime that Urasawa must have read and enjoyed in his childhood, and many references to rock music that took him as he got older. His career as a mangaka and his work with music helps to back this up and his bond to this work is strengthened when you draw comparisons with the protagonist, Kenji . All of this combines to build a fleshed out and detailed setting filled with a warmth that comes from writing about what you have experienced; nostalgia for him is depth for us.
The overall plot of 20th Century boys might seem as odd and unlikely as any shonen battle manga, with mentions of a "League of Evil", prophecies and a plot of worldwide destruction, but I have to stress that this isn't the case. It's a tale that takes our regular world and brings childhood ideas into the lives of adults, and it's something that can be taken seriously as it unravels - for the most part at least. Urasawa brings the kind of high stakes usually reserved for fantasy, sci-fi or battle manga to the modern world, but adds an almost slice-of-life element to it by bringing a setting he has experienced and rolling it together to form a thrilling, but down to Earth story. It does have a dash of Science Fiction later on, but nothing too strong, if you want a prose comparison think "1984" or "Fahrenheit 451".
Urasawa's art seems perfect for the setting and tone, with his rough, no-frills style that echoes the real world, which is far more fitting than that of any of the more decorative styles often used today could be. This means that it may not be for everyone though, especially those that tend to prefer their manga on the moe side when it comes to art.
As I've mentioned, the reader is shown the character's lives at different stages and this sets up a great way to exhibit some perfect character development. As children the cast aren't bad, though not without tropes: The fat, goofy one, the nerdy one etc... but it's as a group that they really shine. The things they get up to are things you would expect from a bunch of kids and I wouldn't be surprised if Urasawa had gotten up to it a lot of it himself. There are a lot of laughs to be found in this period - stealing their dad's girly mags and refusing to stand up because of their boners gave me a chuckle, amongst other things. They have such a great dynamic hanging out together in their hide out, and though it seems idyllic it's not without its imperfections. As they get older the members of the group have their own things to do (studying, new interests outside the group) and of course there are the neighborhood bullies. The kids dealing with everything together, often in amusing ways, make these sections. As the kids get slightly older you see some of the less prominent members deal with changes and this has a much greater impact thanks to the history you've learnt about them.
There are two other prominent time periods: you see them as regular working adults and then you see them a little further on when the pressure begins to hit. Most of the gang make a natural progression to their adult selves, though it is fun to see how they've grown and what jobs each of the gang has got. However, it's when the pressure hits that you see the best of the character writing. It's great to see characters that are used to being followers in the side-lines become leaders, but in a reluctant and terrified way that makes it feel natural, or how events and new people in their lives have sculpted them and prepared them for how they act and respond to what is happening to them.
The second half has some dramatic changes: The setting is different, the tone changes, the pace changes and the focus is on different characters. I can't say too much about this without spoiling a lot of the story but I can mention the pacing. I felt the first half was very tight, bar a few introductory chapters that got the story going, but the second half seems to have a lot more fat on it. The concentration often deters from the mysteries here and clues are fed to you slightly slower. The tension dissipates in parts, though when it comes back it does grab you again rather quickly. It is a shame that some of it loses that "just-one-more-chapter-I-need-to-know-the-answers" goodness for certain parts, but rest assured that by the end it gets that back and in such a good way that it makes the last two volumes painful to put down.
20th Century Boys is a manga filled with intrigue and one that gets seriously hard to put down due to its mystery and deep characters. This is a manga aimed at older readers, and if you want something different from the usual this may be perfect. On the back of each tankobon is a quote that reads "Urasawa is a national treasure in Japan and if you aren't afraid of picture books you'll see why" and it's worth taking note of. The unique story, art style and characters blend together to form a fantastic series, and although it does have the occasional pacing problem, overall it's still a phenomenal tale. It's a story that throws off a lot of what is expected from Japanese comics and comics in general, but that is told so well because it is one. If you're a hardcore manga fan of any genre, or even if you're completely new comics I would suggest you pick this up.