by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
It stunned me to see that Naoki Urasawa, in volume 15 of his long-running series, was still introducing new characters, but it was so skillfully done, and the new cast member has such potential, that I was intrigued.
Since the conflict this time revolves around the Pope’s upcoming visit to Japan for the Friend’s funeral, it’s natural that the new character is a priest, Brother Luciano. He’s come to the home of his deceased mentor to carry on his work investigating an odd Book of Prophecy. The mentor previously rescued him from life as a gangster and a drunk, creating deep bonds that provide clues as to what actually happened to the older priest. The story of redemption would, in other hands, be trite, but here, it’s told efficiently, with just the right particular images to illustrate Luciano’s past and possible future. He serves as an object lesson that a little knowledge quickly becomes dangerous for the bearer in these circumstances.
I’m of the right generation that a plot to kill a Pope invariably reminds me of Foul Play, but it’s refreshing to see established religion finally make an appearance in 20th Century Boys. The cult that the Friend has formed would normally come in conflict with an established Church, but here Urasawa shows us how the Friends have superseded conventional religion to become a world-wide super-organization. This alternate take on the looming threat serves as a refreshing break from the heavy main plotline while serving as a reminder and introduction to new ramifications of the overall situation. Plus, Urasawa turns the event in an unexpected direction that’s even more surprising than anything the reader could suspect.
We get to see the young detective Chocho again, a favorite character, as Luciano winds up in police custody in Japan. The threads of similarity between him and a previously seen supporting character reveal themselves in surprising ways. In between, there’s an exciting flashback sequence in which a priest tries to get medicine to a remote Chinese village during a rainstorm during the first plague. Urasawa is sure to keep the visuals involving, even while filling in background and reminding us that even the Pope has his own past.
In each recent volume of 20th Century Boys, Urasawa has been surprising me with the direction he takes the ever-growing story. The overreaching structure isn’t forgotten, but by diving into individual stories and the changing facets of how this world affects individual inhabitants, Urasawa justifies his length and structure. Plus, it lets him draw plenty of dramatic reactions and cinematic sequences of suspense that are a pleasure to read and look at multiple times. (The publisher provided a review copy.)