by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Kenji is still investigating the mysterious symbol from his childhood. However, things aren’t going well at the family convenience store. The franchise’s district manager is threatening to end Kenji’s contract if sales don’t pick up. He’s also unhappy with the way Kenji runs the store and demands that baby girl Kanna be put into daycare instead of being carted around on Kenji’s back.
A law firm, hired by family members of people who have joined the Our Friend cult, and the police seem to have uncovered the identity of Our Friend. However, both want a few more details to be completely sure. Another of Kenji’s childhood friends comes back into his life: Yukiji, the strongest girl who ever lived. She is friends with one of the lawyers and wants Kenji to help them.
This is character-driven storytelling. It would be a mistake to think the focus of this series is the Our Friend cult storyline. Instead, the focus of 20th Century Boys is Kenji’s redemption and his restoration to the hero he was meant to be. Just like another favorite manga of mine, xxxHOLiC, the heart of this series is the transformation of the main character. To appreciate the man Kenji will become, we have to first see the boy filled with potential and optimism who inspires his friends, then we must see how that potential is squandered. This is why Urasawa spends so much time going over Kenji’s history and the people who influenced him the most.
Kenji isn’t a rugged individualist out there forging his own destiny and changing the world single-handedly. Instead, he is a man embodied in a network of relationships and responsibilities that have shaped who he is. To understand why Kenji is so insistent on raising Kanna himself, you have to understand his relationship with his sister (her mother). To see why people put such trust in him, you have to see the ways he inspired them as a kid. Each of Kenji’s friends that we meet and each flashback to some past event are all part of getting to know Kenji fully. Urasawa reminds us that even the humblest of humans is a wonderfully complex being. We are all an alchemy of hopes, failures, friendships, beliefs, loves, duties, promises, etc. And it’s this three dimensional look at Kenji’s life that makes the series so brilliant.
One thing that impressed me with this volume was how Urasawa transformed Kenji’s sister, Kiriko, from dubious character into a sympathetic person. In the first volume, all we know about her is that she has given her baby to her mother and Kenji to raise. Kiriko offers no explanations as to why she can’t raise the child, who the father is, where she is going, or if she will ever be back. Certainly, this doesn’t create the best first impression. However, as we see the sacrifices she has made over the years for Kenji, the way she has been a surrogate mother to him, we see someone who lost a great deal of her own childhood. She is worn out from her labors. Only as an adult can Kenji understand and appreciate his sister and her sacrifices. He raises Kanna as a way to repay Kiriko for all she’s done for him and the family. When Kenji refuses to shuffle Kanna off to a daycare, it’s part of him relearning how to stand up for what he believes.
I don’t want to imply that there is no plot to this series, or that the storyline isn’t progressing from book to book. The plot focus of this volume is the identity of Our Friend. If you’ve read the first volume, then you already know who he is. Part of the fun of this book is watching how different characters are coming to the same verdict. In the process, we get to learn a lot about the past of Our Friend. I enjoy seeing how police detectives follow the trail of evidence and then piece it all together to draw their conclusion. Also, we get flashbacks to when Our Friend was a kid, so it’s interesting to see who he was and what he’s grown up to be. What’s amazing is that Kenji hasn’t pieced all of this together on his own. So it’s a relief when he is finally told and now has to come to grips with that revelation.
The artwork continues to be marvelous. Urasawa really communicates a character’s emotional states. This is best seen in baby Kanna. When I read this series, I always know if she is angry, sad, joyful, or willful. Manga may be a silent media, but her speech balloons explode with sound as I’m reading. Just flipping through the book, you can look at any face and know if it’s a sad moment or a happy moment. Urasawa’s realistic art style perfectly matches his storytelling. I do wish that Viz would reproduce the color pages for this manga. I would love to see what color palette and style he is using for this series.
I’m taking great pleasure in getting to know Kenji better with each volume. I like watching him slowly come to the point where he will have to step up and become the hero hidden within. Urasawa has populated 20th Century Boys with a cast of fascinating people, any of whom you could write a good manga about. I love a good slow-burn book. This is a deliberately paced series that builds momentum with each chapter. This series provides a template for future manga and comic authors on how to create works as rich and complex as any prose novel. 20th Century Boys is a testament to Tezuka’s faith in manga/comics as an art form and its ability to be on par with the finest literary works.