20th Century Boys is a series that I’ve been interested in for some time. Written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa, the award-winning creator behind such classic seinen manga as Monster and Pluto, 20th Century Boys tells a thrilling mystery/adventure story involving evil cults, bioterrorism and a group of washed up adults whose childhood games of make-believe might just hold the key to saving the world. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this series for years and now Viz Media is giving 20th Century Boys the star treatment with a new, 2-in-1 omnibus release dubbed: The Perfect Edition. This seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to finally read this series and see for myself what has earned it so much acclaim from the manga community.
As kids, Kenji and his friends daydreamed about being heroes and saving the world, but as adults they’ve all become boring businessmen and shopkeepers who live ordinary, unexciting lives. When an entire family that patronized his store disappears under mysterious circumstances, Kenji notices a symbol scrawled on the side of their house that looks hauntingly familiar. Not long after that, one of his childhood friends dies in an apparent suicide and Kenji is shocked when he receives a letter from the deceased man asking about the same symbol and whether or not he remembers it. Convinced that this can’t be a coincidence, Kenji starts to look into his friend’s death and desperately tries to recall the origins of the symbol, which he’s certain was once used by him and his friends as part of their games. The trail of clues all lead back to a secretive group led by a man who refers to himself simply as “Friend”. This enigmatic figure seems intent on the destruction of the world and Kenji’s childhood memories may hold the key to stopping his sinister plot!
20th Century Boys is a complicated work with a large cast of characters, frequent time jumps and multiple plot threads on the go, as various people investigate the cult from different angles and their machinations are revealed bit by bit, like a puzzle being assembled piece by piece. The manga dives right into the thick of things, jumping around to different perspectives and time periods from the start of the first chapter and I initially felt adrift and without anything to grasp onto during the early portions of the story. That isn’t to say that I found the manga to be confusing, there’s certainly a lot going on but I was able to follow along just fine. The problem was that I didn’t feel that engaged with the story; the mystery was intriguing and the ominous tone hanging over everything promised that something big was coming, but I didn’t find the characters to be appealing and thus had a hard time caring about what was happening to them, at least initially.
I’m not sure if the disconnect I was feeling was a result of generational or cultural differences or if it had to do with the fact that I was never a little boy, but I didn’t feel any tug of nostalgia during the flashback sequences that take place during the lead characters youth growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. I’m sure that these portions of the manga are intended to evoke a sense of wistfulness, as there are a lot of focus on things like secret hideouts, rock and roll music and tropes from old sci-fi/horror movies or TV shows . I imagine that there are plenty of people who would read these sections and fondly think back on when they were obsessed with similar things and would play similar games with their own friends, but I didn’t find Kenji’s childhood antics to be particularly amusing and instead thought all of the kids came off as annoying little shits. Fast forward to the present and their adult counterparts are also kind of dicks who make fun of each other all of the time and don’t seem to like each other that much, not exactly a charming bunch. So for close to half of the book (or the majority of what would have been the first volume of the original publication) I didn’t really care about any of the people in this story and was finding it hard to fully enjoy reading it. I was starting to get a little worried that I was going to sit down to write this review and only have negative things to say about a work that I knew to be generally very highly regarded in the manga community. Not a prospect that I was looking forward to.
Then a shift occurred close to the midpoint. After the funeral of their mutual friend, Kenji and his pals go out drinking and, after downing a few wobbly pops, one of them recalls a time capsule that they had buried as kids and they all decide to go dig it up. When they unearth the old tin they’d buried all those year ago and excitedly open it up they discover that it contains some toy snakes, a bunch of terrible drawings of robots and laser guns and a porn magazine one of them had stolen from their dad. When they see what their past selves had thought worthy of preserving for the future they all turn to each other and marvel at what idiots they were as kids. And that was the moment that ended up winning me over. Individual people’s childhood experiences may differ greatly across time and national borders, but I guess that the feeling of looking back and shaking your head at your own childhood stupidity is a universal experience. This scene also reassured me that the manga wasn’t trying to present these obnoxious kids as some kind of idealized picture of youth, but was more focused on examining the experiences that shape us.
Another factor that finally allowed me to get pulled into the narrative was that, not long after the unearthing of the time capsule, the story started to introduce us to some delightful and interesting female characters, something that had been missing up until that point. I instantly loved Yukiji, a present day customs officer who was a feisty scrapper as a kid, which earned her the moniker of: The Strongest Girl in the World. She’s a badass, no-nonsense character who doesn’t put up with any bullshit and who is just a lot of fun. The other character I am now fascinated with is Kenji’s older sister, Kiriko, who we only meet in flashbacks because she has gone missing in the present timeline. From the start of the manga, Kenji has spent a lot of time caring for his baby niece, Kanna. He is frequently carrying her around on his back, even when he’s working, since he and his mother have been taking care of her since Kiriko disappeared. During the flashbacks to when they were kids, we see Kenji start to appreciate, in a way he hadn’t at the time, how much his sister had taken care of him. Certain details are re-contextualized for Kenji as he acquires new information about his sister and he realizes how much she sacrificed for the family for so many years without asking for anything for herself. It becomes clear that he is so devoted to his niece because he is determined to repay his sister for everything that she did for him. Seeing Kenji come to these revelations and face up to the fact that he had often behaved selfishly in the past was very poignant and it went a long way towards endearing him to me.
By the end of the book I was desperate to know what happened to Kiriko and how exactly she fits into “Friend’s” schemes. I’ve now been completely sucked into the twisting web that 20th Century Boys is weaving and I’m looking forward to hopefully getting some answers to my many questions in the next volume. I’m glad that I decided to collect the Perfect Edition of this manga. In addition to being a lovely book with a larger trim size and a ton of colour pages, I think I benefited from being able to read this story in larger chunks. There are a lot of moving parts at play and a lot of things that needed to be set up at the beginning of the narrative, so the plot gets off to a slow start, in my opinion. As everything starts to tie together I found myself completely captivated by the mystery of “Friend” and rooting for our hapless leads to live up to their childhood dreams and become the heroes they always wanted to be. After sleeping on this title for years, I’m glad that I’ve finally started reading it and I encourage anyone else who’s been considering picking it up to give it a try!
Final Score: 7.5 out of 10.
You can find more information on this series on Viz Media’s website: https://www.viz.com/read/manga/20th-century-boys-the-perfect-edition-volume-1/product/5630
What do you think of this series? Are there any other Naoki Urasawa titles that you think I should read? Let me know in the comments!