Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie … the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them. [Such films] engage me so immediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analytical reserve. The movie’s happening, and it’s happening to me. — Roger Ebert, in his 1977 review of Star Wars
Four times in a row I sat down and tried to put into words how I felt about 20th Century Boys. And in the end I’ve resorted to quoting Ebert, because, damn it all, he said it best. The best manga make you forget you’re reading a manga. You are simply having an experience, one that stands off the page the way the best 3-D movies couldn’t ever stand off the screen.
The first volume of Boys dropped you right into both the story and Urasawa’s way of telling the story. Like his monster Monster before it, this one spans decades, continents, and whole families of characters, so just parking us at one end of the timeline and pushing us headfirst through the whole thing in chronological order wasn’t going to cut it. It’s told in timestreams as fragmented and cross-weaved as the plotlines for movies like Traffic or Syriana. After those so-called Hyperlink Films, where a word in one scene leads us to a major discovery in another, here’s Hyperlink Manga. In Boys, a single half-seen image can cut loose avalanches of memory and plotlines worthy of whole books unto themselves.
Boil down the premise and what you get sound faintly silly: a gang of pre-adolescent boys grow up and discover someone, possibly one of their own former playmates, is using one of their childhood games as the template for a plan to unleash world destruction. Even they don’t believe it at first — who would? — but by the end of the second book, enough clues have piled up to convince even the most staunchly skeptical that at the very least something very, very wrong is afoot.
At the center of this vortex of past, present and future is Kenji — failed rock star, nearly-failed convenience store owner, now living with his missing sister’s baby perpetually strapped to his back and trying his best to be all things to all people. He’s as close to a protagonist as we are likely to get, and at first that was because he was the one forced to cobble together as many of the pieces as possible. Why did their childhood friend “Donkey” kill himself, if that was indeed even a suicide in the first place? What’s the deal with this mysterious cult who rally around a figure they call “Friend”, and who happen to use a logo they designed as kids as part of their treehouse-club fantasy? He doesn’t have answers, either, just one horrible possibility after another.
If the first book was setup — introducing all the major players, showing us how the story worked, giving us a bit of plot to gnaw on — the second book gives us a bit more payoff. Most importantly, on a character level, it shows Kenji finally developing a badly-needed bit of spine: when the franchise manager gets on his case about “lugging that thing around” (the baby), he finds the strength to retort: That is not a thing. That is a child. You were once something like this too, you know. And until his sister comes back — if she ever does come back — he’s sworn to make sure that baby gets the care and attention it’s not going to receive just by accident. Even if Kenji is someday responsible for saving the world, regime change begins at home and all that: how’s he going to save the world if he can’t even get this guy out of his hair?
But the more that comes his way, the more he realizes there may not be anyone else to take on either job. At one point late in the volume he finds a clue that might reveal his sister’s whereabouts — it’s revealed via the dependable old cliché of the long-unread letter falling out of a book / piece of furniture / favorite toy / etc. — and it points him in the very last direction he wants to look, right back at “Friend” and his gang of goons. And then comes the revelation that caps off the volume, where he finds that Donkey was indeed a victim of “Friend”’s wide-reaching and disturbingly powerful network of people. Urasawa loves the idea that the real beasts come in perfectly ordinary packages, and act the part. Monster’s main villain was a saintly creature who managed to inspire nothing but kindness and good will, but under it all as a sociopath who longed to destroy everything.
What I love most about Boys is how effortless Urasawa’s storytelling seems; he does it like he’s dancing for joy, not just marching to a finish line. Consider the character Yukiji, a tomboy from Kenji’s past, who saved his butt from being whipped more than a few times and now works as a customs officer. She’s skeptical about the whole “Friend” thing, bordering on dismissive. But the way Urasawa whips us back and forth between present and past, we see without needing to be told how her protective instincts — in whatever form they may come in — transcend skepticism. (There’s a nice parallel here in that Kenji’s missing sister essentially helped raise him when he was a child: he owes himself more than twice over to women he’s neither seen nor heard from in ages.)
Art: Ingmar Bergman once said that the history of cinema was the history of the human face. Urasawa’s style seems informed by the same conceit: if there’s one thing he loves to give us in more detail and with more zeal than anything else, it’s the look on a person’s face. The eighteen volumes of Monster was a good introduction to that aspect of Urasawa’s approach, and he continues that trend here, too. He also manages the difficult trick of giving us a pivotal character who remains faceless and yet compelling (look at the scene where he makes “Our Friend” weep without actually showing anything!). Backgrounds and environments get more than a decent amount of detail, but Urasawa keeps his people and their emotions front and center at all times.
Translation: The most frustrating thing about Viz is how there is no way of knowing ahead of time what approach they may take with a given title. Color me spoiled by the likes of Del Rey if you like, but with Del Rey their ferociously consistent editorial style means most anything under their aegis gets the presentation it deserves. With Boys, Viz get it more right than wrong, though: they presented it right-to-left, annotated the book with a few cultural endnotes, and left most signage intact. The only retouching they did was for on-panel sound effects (a peeve of mine; sometimes these things are as much art as the art itself). The translation itself was prepared by Akemi Wegmüller, a new name to me, but the results read with the fluidity and cultural awareness a title like this needs.
The Bottom Line: The average volume of Boys sells for $13. On the average, that’s about the cost of two other manga. Take the two manga near the bottom of the shopping list, swap in Boys for ‘em, and see if you’re not hooked.