20th Century Boys Books 8-11

After reviewing 20th Century Boys Book 7 last year, being somewhat ambivalent towards it, and considering the overall series length of 24 books, I found myself putting the manga on personal hiatus. I stopped reading it for a while, since it was easier to keep up with shorter, cheaper, lighter weight books. But then Ed said he’d caught up, and he praised books 12 and 13 (which he’ll be reviewing here soon), so I thought I’d better read the in-between volumes as well.

I’m not sure I’d recommend that method, of reading a bunch in one big gulp. Unlike some of Naoki Urasawa’s other works, the serialized original publication method seems more obvious to me in this series. There’s only so many times I can be teased with “you’re the Friend!” and not be shown the face without feeling cheated, and that repetition only becomes more aggravating when it’s more frequent. My sense of patience has been tried greatly, both with key elements not being revealed and characters I enjoyed disappearing in favor of new, sometimes more generic ones.

Don’t get me wrong, this is excellent work — but it may be one of those items that I would be happier following serially. For comparison, many of my favorite TV shows I buy on DVD because I want to rewatch them and find new things in them, but there are a handful (like Bones) that I only need to see once. I enjoy watching them, but once I’ve seen them, I feel as though I never need to see them again. Similarly, I’m not getting a sense from this series that I will see new insight upon rereading. Sure, at the end, once all the mysteries are revealed (assuming they are — and that I’m questioning that isn’t a good sign), the early books will likely seem a little different, but realistically, how likely am I to reread four year’s worth of manga? (That’s assuming it keeps its bimonthly schedule.)

It’s a difficult question, and it’s probably a good idea that Viz released Pluto and Monster first, to build a reputation for Urasawa in the U.S. that gives readers more faith that the payoff will be worth it. And I did enjoy what I read. Contradicting what I said above, I buzzed through these four books, indulging in the adrenaline-fueled ups and downs, chases and threats. To continue the TV comparisons, I was never a fan of such serialized mysteries as Heroes or Lost. Maybe the qualities you need to follow those kinds of shows are needed here, too, the desire to puzzle out connections and hints and see if your guesses play out.

Book 8 begins with a lot of flashback about the actual construction of the robot that destroyed Tokyo on New Year’s Eve 2000. Of all the elements of that terrible turn of the millenium, that was one I wasn’t curious about at all. We do get to see Kenji be heroic, although we already knew he had been, and see eight pages of him singing a song that demonstrates how tricky it is to capture the emotional impact of music on the printed comic page.

The high point of the book is the expansion of Koizumi’s arc. Introduced in the previous volume, she is the high school student who’s investigating the history of Bloody New Year’s Eve and thus hearing the “real version” from the rich homeless man. Now, she’s not an original character — she was the typical rebellious-but-not-too-much schoolgirl in the last book, and she only becomes something more when she is very scared and threatened here. In a way, she’s the same as Kanna, Kenji’s niece and the spunky young fighter of previous books, only Koizumi is a more civilized, suburban version.

Koizumi is sent off to “Friend Land”, a brainwashing retreat introducing yet another set of characters. Book 8 is her story, really, as she struggles to survive, then overcome, until finally she’s sent back in time virtually to show us more of the kids back in the 70s, this time in a haunted house story. That continues in Book 9, which also introduces new extraordinary abilities for Kanna and a conspiracy straight out of Foul Play.

Between her psychic powers and the sudden introduction of a second book of prophecy, I found myself wondering if Urasawa was taking shortcuts at the last minute or plotting based on dice throws. Given the shifts in cast and the from-nowhere introduction of some of these concepts, the only way I can make sense of all this is to figure that the creator is working out some kind of bet, where he’s demonstrating that he can include every manga genre in this series — crime drama, conspiracy adventure, schoolgirl in danger, heroic rogue cop, young messiah discovering her purpose, even super fighters.

Book 10 finally brings the two young ladies together as Koizumi continues experiencing fallout from her experiences in Friend Land and is threatened with going to Friend World, with bigger and more extensive psychological manipulation. There’s yet another red herring Friend introduced, although his backstory makes for a touching side story about what it means to be a lonely little boy. By Book 11, his story is concluded, but that volume introduces Kanna’s search for her missing mother and a whole ‘nother level of conspiracy.

I admire the imagination involved in constantly spiraling more events into this book, but goodness, at the end, it’s a bit wearying! Still, all that said, I look forward to seeing Ed’s more in-depth thoughts on the next books, because I’m sure he has a greater appreciation for them than I do. I’m told Book 12 marks the turning point, with the volumes after taking a new direction. Just what this series needs — yet another change!

7 Comments

  1. I ended up reading these same volumes in a big bunch too. I found the sudden future shift not really to my liking. The work is good, no doubt about it, but it felt like the creator saying “oh shit, this is really popular, I need a way to keep it going” and boom, we’re suddenly 20 years in an unexpected future and lots of mystery to dole out in bits at a time to stretch out the story.

    From my understanding, this need to stretch out popular series is common in manga. They figure out ways to spin their wheels and keep it going until it loses steam, then they end it quickly, but leave a little bit unfinished so they can do a sequel sometime in the future.

    Anyways, I let the volumes pile up before going back to it. I also stopped reading after Vol. 11 and the new direction has grown on me and I’m interested again. Still I’ve not yet read Vol. 12 and 13 because I think I like reading this series in chunks now. My feeling is this series requires a few volumes to be read in a sitting for enough stuff to happen for a satisfying experience.

  2. Despite the impressions you’re getting, the series does reward rereading. And many of the elements that appear to come out of nowhere actually are hinted at earlier on.

    For instance, regarding the introduction of psychic powers you had the entire spoon-bending thing, not to mention the scene with Kanna as a baby where she is accurately and consistently guessing which hand her grandmother is holding a sweet in.

    I have a feeling that taking large breaks and then picking up the series again won’t do it any kindness. I definitely know that I enjoyed the series much more when I read the it in the entirety of a weekend than now, only reading a volume every other month. I reckon a constant stream of the story in chapter size is probably better than a chunk every few months.

    All things considered, 20th Century Boys is very intricately plotted. It’s definitely not perfect (there’s an excellent French Urasawa fansite which has some analysis of plot-holes), but I think the important question when to consider when asking that is: How many authors COULD have written a story like this perfectly?

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that unlike authors like James Ellroy, Urasawa is working in a serialized medium. He was producing chapters every other week, and did not have the luxury even if he had plotted out most of the story already (which I reckon he did) to revise and rework chapters either in themselves or within the context of the broader story. Every installation he had two weeks to get right, two weeks to ensure it fit in the proper place among its 250+ sibling chapters some of whom had not even been born yet. He worked so hard at it he actually had to take a year off due to dislocations of both his shoulders before finishing with 21st Century Boys.

  3. “There’s only so many times I can be teased with “you’re the Friend!” and not be shown the face without feeling cheated, and that repetition only becomes more aggravating when it’s more frequent.”

    That’s the only reason why I gave up on the series because I found the answer incredibly unsatisfying and didn’t make the previous volumes read any better. The rest of the series is pretty good but the “Who is the Friend?” mystery dragged the rest of story down for me and, after about volume 8 or 9, I didn’t expect that all of the teases about the Friend would pay off in any kind of meaningful way.

    To be fair to Urasawa though, I think stories like 20thCB, Lost, Heroes and the like are rarely going to be satisfying because cliff hangers only really work the first and all of the expectations that readers/viewers build up are very hard to meet.

  4. I was feeling a bit weary of the book around volumes 10-11 but 12-13 have definitely reignited my interest, similar to how the previous radical shifts in setting whipped the book out of a funk.

  5. Eric, you’re right, reader expectations may have just become unfulfillable. I know, after Pluto, I expected pure genius, which was probably unfair.

  6. I read the first two volumes when they first came out and loved what I saw! But I’ve let the most recent volumes pile up since then. I’ll probably do what I almost always seem to do with a longer series. Let the volumes pile up until I have them all, and read everything over a week from begining to end. I hate it when I’m many volumes into a series and when a new release comes out I sit down to read it…and have to be reminded of certain details in order to fully appreciate the newest volume. I loved Pluto, perhaps while I’m waiting for 20th Century Boys to finish releasing I’ll finally read Monster.

  7. […] Unlike Johanna, I enjoy reading the series in large chunks. I find the three-month wait between volumes is nerve-wracking. I like being completely lost in the world Urasawa has created and having all the details fresh in my mind as I move from volume to volume. You can see how the various timelines play off each other, how seemingly random events have deeper meaning, and how there are no minor players in this series. […]

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