Every once in a while I have what I think of as anout-of-the-body experience at a movie … the events in the movie seemreal, and I seem to be a part of them. [Such films] engage me soimmediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analyticalreserve. 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. Andin the end I’ve resorted to quoting Ebert, because, damn it all, hesaid 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 theway 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 Monsterbefore it, this one spans decades, continents, and whole families ofcharacters, so just parking us at one end of the timeline and pushingus headfirst through the whole thing in chronological order wasn’tgoing to cut it. It’s told in timestreams as fragmented andcross-weaved as the plotlines for movies like Traffic or Syriana.After those so-called Hyperlink Films, where a word in one scene leadsus 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 gangof pre-adolescent boys grow up and discover someone, possibly one oftheir own former playmates, is using one of their childhood games asthe template for a plan to unleash world destruction. Even theydon’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 staunchlyskeptical that at the very least something very, very wrong is afoot.
Atthe center of this vortex of past, present and future is Kenji—failedrock star, nearly-failed convenience store owner, now living with hismissing sister’s baby perpetually strapped to his back and trying hisbest to be all things to all people. He’s as close to a protagonist aswe are likely to get, and at first that was because he was the oneforced to cobble together as many of the pieces as possible. Why didtheir childhood friend “Donkey” kill himself, if that was indeed even asuicide in the first place? What’s the deal with this mysterious cultwho rally around a figure they call “Friend”, and who happen to use alogo they designed as kids as part of their treehouse-club fantasy? Hedoesn’t have answers, either, just one horrible possibility afteranother.
If the first book was setup—introducing all the majorplayers, showing us how the story worked, giving us a bit of plot tognaw on—the second book gives us a bit more payoff. Most importantly,on a character level, it shows Kenji finally developing a badly-neededbit of spine: when the franchise manager gets on his case about“lugging that thing around” (the baby), he finds the strength toretort: That is not a thing. That is a child. You wereonce something like this too, you know. And until his sister comesback—if she ever does come back—he’s sworn to make sure that baby getsthe care and attention it’s not going to receive just by accident. Evenif Kenji is someday responsible for saving the world, regimechange begins at home and all that: how’s he going to save the world ifhe can’t even get this guy out of his hair?
But the more thatcomes his way, the more he realizes there may not be anyone else totake on either job. At one point late in the volume he finds a cluethat might reveal his sister’s whereabouts—it’s revealed via thedependable old cliché of the long-unread letter falling out of a book /piece of furniture / favorite toy / etc.—and it points him in the verylast direction he wants to look, right back at “Friend” and his gang ofgoons. And then comes the revelation that caps off the volume, where hefinds that Donkey was indeed a victim of “Friend”’s wide-reaching anddisturbingly powerful network of people. Urasawa loves the idea thatthe real beasts come in perfectly ordinary packages, and act the part. Monster’smain villain was a saintly creature who managed to inspire nothing butkindness and good will, but under it all as a sociopath who longed todestroy everything.
What I love most about Boys is howeffortless Urasawa’s storytelling seems; he does it like he’s dancingfor joy, not just marching to a finish line. Consider the characterYukiji, a tomboy from Kenji’s past, who saved his butt from beingwhipped more than a few times and now works as a customs officer. She’sskeptical about the whole “Friend” thing, bordering on dismissive. Butthe way Urasawa whips us back and forth between present and past, wesee without needing to be told how her protective instincts—in whateverform they may come in—transcend skepticism. (There’s a nice parallelhere 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: IngmarBergman once said that the history of cinema was the history of thehuman face. Urasawa’s style seems informed by the same conceit: ifthere’s one thing he loves to give us in more detail and with more zealthan anything else, it’s the look on a person’s face. The eighteenvolumes of Monster was a good introduction to that aspect ofUrasawa’s approach, and he continues that trend here, too. He alsomanages the difficult trick of giving us a pivotal character whoremains faceless and yet compelling (look at the scene where he makes“Our Friend” weep without actually showing anything!). Backgrounds andenvironments get more than a decent amount of detail, but Urasawa keepshis people and their emotions front and center at all times.
Translation: Themost frustrating thing about Viz is how there is no way of knowingahead of time what approach they may take with a given title. Color mespoiled by the likes of Del Rey if you like, but with Del Rey theirferociously 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 itright-to-left, annotated the book with a few cultural endnotes, andleft most signage intact. The only retouching they did was for on-panelsound effects (a peeve of mine; sometimes these things are as much artas the art itself). The translation itself was prepared by AkemiWegmüller, a new name to me, but the results read with the fluidity andcultural awareness a title like this needs.
The Bottom Line: The average volume of Boyssells for $13. On the average, that’s about the cost of two othermanga. Take the two manga near the bottom of the shopping list, swap inBoys for ‘em, and see if you’re not hooked.
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