My favorite movie of the last decade or so is Oldboy, and when I watch it with friends who haven’t seen it before I find myself not so much looking at the movie as I do their faces. I watch them most intently during the scene with the photo album. (You’ve seen it? You know what I’m talking about.) They usually have their hands steepled over their mouth, which is by then open wide enough to serve as a landing bay for the Spruce Goose.
Take a picture of yourself while you’re reading the last couple of pages of the fifth volume of 20th Century Boys, because odds are you’re going to look exactly like that. File that photo in the dictionary next to the word gobsmacked. The stunt that Naoki Urasawa pulls in this volume is very nearly up into the Oldboy stratosphere as far as emotional impact goes: he doesn’t so much mislead us as he allows us to mislead ourselves. This whole time we’ve been allowed to think this story would have a happy ending, and now he not only pulls the rug out from under us but the floor along with it.
Volume five is split in half. Part one is a continuation of the story as it’s been unfolding — the last days of the world as written down by little Kenji in his “Book of Prophecy”. Now grown-up Kenji has found someone from his childhood — or maybe just someone, period — stole all those child’s games for himself and used them as a blueprint for world domination. It’s no joke: he’s seen with his own eyes the real-life version of the robot he created in a child’s scrawl all those years ago, watched the very disasters he dreamed up come to life on the eleven o’clock news. Now it’s come time for him to do something about it — to band together his other childhood friends, to use what few weapons they can get their hands on, and to rage against the dying of the light before it rages first.
Just as Kenji and his buddies pick up their guns and dynamite and start their Wild Bunch Walk, Urasawa does something downright perverse. He ends the scene — just cuts it short right there — and jumps forward fifteen years into the life of Endo Kanna, the infant Kenji was caring for back when the story kicked off. Kenji has glimpsed her intermittently ever since going underground, and now almost two decades later she has nothing but the fondest memories of him as a hero. It gives her a reckless kind of strength, heedless enough that she does things like storm into an alleyway where two rival criminal gangs are having a fight and tells them to both knock it the hell off.
Then Urasawa does something else that twists our collective heads right off. He begins to drop hints about what might have happened in that final battle, and those hints add up to very bad news indeed. Kanna visits a shrine to wish “Uncle Kenji” a happy birthday — except that it’s a shrine dedicated to the Friends as “saviors of our earth”, not Kenji. The end of the volume, likewise, shows that the Diet Building is now a palace for the Friends. The horrible meaning of all this is clear: Kenji and his friends lost their battle, and the few hints we have received throughout that they were victorious were all designed to mislead.
Or is that what happened? Urasawa’s storytelling is so confident that by now I’d be prepared to accept a plot that ultimately takes the form of something like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. That book had multiple versions of history existing side-by-side — e.g., one where America lost WWII, or one where a very different sort of victory took place, neither being “ours”. It would take a very accomplished author and artist to make a conceit like that stick, but if someone like Urasawa isn’t up to the job, I’m not sure anyone would be.
Even if we’re not being set up for some kind of multiple-worlds-interpretation storytelling gimmick, two things are certain. One, I have little doubt Urasawa knows precisely what he’s doing and where he’s going. Two, no serious manga reader (that is, a reader who is serious or a reader of serious manga; either one fits) can afford to pass this series up. It’s gone from being a recommendation to a necessity.