Monday, April 12, 2010

20th & 21st Century Boys - manga review

In the past week, I have read the "20th Century Boys" manga. The last chapter I left for Saturday morning and I planned to write a review of it right after reading it, but then I found that I was gravely mistaken. I was aware of the existence of the "21st Century Boys" manga, but I thought of it as some kind of a spin-off of the original manga. That is not true: it contains last two chapters of the original manga, but for some reason it's serialized under a different name. Interesting, this manga doesn't have an anime serialization yet. So it is also a first manga that I have read without watching the anime version first.
When I started reading it, it reminded me of two things: "Monster" and Stephen King. I checked it later, it is written by the same mangaka that did the "Monster" manga: Urasawa Naoki. It is similar to "Monster" in many things: it is a mystery manga where you know the "enemy" from the beginning, but as you watch, you realize that you actually understand much less then you think. As the "Monster", it has a great number of characters, many plot twists, almost super-human bad-guy(s), good guys mistaken for criminals...
Story follows Endou Kenji and his elementary-school friends, who are, at the beginning, mostly boring adults. But, suddenly, a stream of mysterious events starts in his town: missing of a whole family, suicide of Kenji's old friend, disappearance of his older sister... All this is somehow connected to a mysterious religious cult, revolving around an unknown leader called "Friend". And it looks like "Friend" is someone from Kenji's past...
Now semblance to Stepehen King comes to play; first part of the manga reminded me of his novel "It". As in there, story simultaneously follows a group of adults and their younger versions, gradually revealing how the past influences the present. The past time-line shows kids in usual children adventures: building a secret base, visiting the ghost-house, driving bike during summer... And present time-line shows adults panicky struggling against events that were started when they were just kids. As I said, this is just first part (maybe first quarter) of manga. Later, it comes closer to the near-future dystopia. It's hard to review it without revealing any spoilers, but story involves religious cults, corrupted police, Pope, repressing government, biological warfare, mafia... It's a big mix, but it doesn't give impression of random plot elements mixed together without any coherence: here you get bits and pieces of later events from the start. You can see that it was done with some plan in mind from the beginning.
Now, some things I didn't like. First, "Monster" was a "Xanatos Gambit", meaning that main villain is a master strategist, capable of making such plans, that even if things don't go by his plans, they nevertheless lead to his eventual victory, because he has backup plans. And backup-backup plans. And backup-backup-backup plans (you get my meaning)... This series is more a "Xanatos Roulette": a line of events that were planned by villain in such minuscule details that you get impression that he must have "known the script" or had some prophetical abilities. For better explanation of "Xanatos Gambit and Roulette" check provided links for
Second, here some characters actually rely on paranormal abilities: we have a prophet and few ESPers. Although Johan from the "Monster" sometimes looks like he is really a super-human, he is just a very convincing person (so much that he is able to convince you to commit suicide). However, in the "20th Century Boys", some characters really are super-humans (not too super, but nevertheless). I didn't mind it very much in this series, more so because these abilities are not completely reliable, but it would be much better without them.
And third... I really liked first (Stephen King-like) part of the manga. And I liked the last chapters. But middle part was a bit inflated, though. I understand: It was necessary to show how the villains are much stronger that the good guys, to introduce us to the new characters and make us feel sorry for them, but it could have been shorter. Ending was good; however it left some things unexplained.
Characters are good, complex and convincing. Some of them are based on too stereotypical ideas (the kick-ass monk, the wandering musician, the sociopath cult follower...), but their motivations and history are explained quite well, so it's not a problem to believe in them. Good guys are well done; they have their own problems, fears and insecurities.
Plot is probably a best side of this manga: it is captivating and believable. There are many twists and you are not sure of many things until the end; but this is a mystery series, so this is how it should be. Although, things could have been brought to end faster if characters had more will for some cooperation between them....
I'm not a right person to judge about visuals, but I don't have any objections to this manga from that side. Characters all look normal, without some exaggerations. Backgrounds, architecture and objects look good, but you will probably not read this manga just for its looks.

To summarize: this is a seinen mystery series, lengthy and not for a casual reading. The strong points of it are plot and characters; while reading you will be interested and excited enough to ask few more chapters... But, in the end, I found it a inferior work compared to the "Monster", a similar manga of same author. So, if you haven't read either, read "Monster" first. Then, if you liked it, read this too. Also, for all you who liked "Monster", you will like this series, too.

For my next object of interest, I will be reading "The Many Deaths of the Black Company".

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