“Now I told you that story to tell you this one.”
That was Bill Cosby, between two of his best routines. That could also have been Naoki Urasawa, right before he made that dozen-year leap forward in the middle of the last volume of 20th Century Boys. What’s past is prologue — not just the childhoods of the characters in the 1970s and their adolescence during the 1980s, but the whole “present time” storyline of the 1990s was itself also just prelude. It’s the most daring storytelling chronology I’ve seen in manga since Tezuka sliced and diced time and leapt across the eons in his many-times-over-epic Phoenix.
It’s also not a stunt. The further Urasawa delves into his tale of Apocalypse Now (And Always), the more you see why he chose to tell his story like this, with so many key pieces deliberately missing. For one, it builds suspense; here it is, fourteen years later and the fates of many characters are still up in the air. Last volume we learned about little Kanna, still carrying a torch for her father and the resistance he manifested against the Friends. And in this installment we finally learn what happened to another crucial member of Kenji’s crew: Shogun. It’s not pretty.
Another by-product of Urasawa’s fractured storytelling is the whole process he uses to get us to any one piece of information. The way we learned about Kanna in the last volume, for instance: instead of just dumping information about her into our lap, Urasawa sort of spiraled around her, letting us drink in details about the world she lived in as well. By the time we found out who she really was and what was really going on in her world, it hit with far more impact.
Urasawa uses the same trick here to tell us about Shogun, although for most of the book you’d never realize it. A big part of the plot this time around is taken up with Kanna trying to do something about what she believes is an assassination attempt against the Pope. The way she learns this is funny in a typically Urasawa-esque way: she has to squeeze the information (not always metaphorically, either) bit by bit out of a neighborhood drag queen now in hiding and fearing for his life. Only the eager-beaver Detective Chono also smells a rat, and he tries to win Kanna’s trust — but he’s at the mercy of forces far larger than any of them, and still entertains the naïve belief that justice triumphs because it always did for his grandfather.
The other half of the book involves Kakuta, a manga artist consigned to a maximum-security prison — what used to be Umihotaru — for violating one of the censorious laws of the Age of the Friends. He’s a meek, harmless type — probably no coincidence that Urasawa draws him to resemble the actor John Tuturro in one of his mousier roles — and he’s not going to last a month before he’s dead at the hands of one prisoner faction or another. A minor infraction of the rules sends him packing into solitary, where he’s crammed into a cell next to “the monster”, a decades-long veteran of the prison’s bowels. Said “monster” is in fact Shogun, and if he was made of steel before, he’s carved out of stone now. Kakuta has peripheral knowledge of Kanna, something that inspires Shogun to trust him with some key information-gathering tasks when he’s let back out of solitary. He is plotting a jailbreak, but it may only be possible for one of them to get out — and if Shogun has to choose, it’s going to be someone who has a better shot of reaching Kanna undetected.
There’s ten books listed for this series on RightStuf, which makes me wonder about two things: 1) Where are they going to go with all this in the time left? and 2) If you haven’t signed on from book one and started getting caught up, why not?