by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
The last few pages of Book 15 caused quite the discussion amongst 20th Century Boys fans of my acquaintance, as it showed the return of a character whose unseen presence lay under the entire middle section of the series so far.
Book 16 thus feels like a tease, since it doesn’t follow up on that brief appearance. There’s also more playfulness in its structure, incorporating the reader in its games. The cover approach, in which the kids seem to be talking directly to the viewer, continues on through most of the first chapter, which puts the reader in the story, taking a significant character’s point of view.
That character is the Friend as a child, finally showing us how he felt about always being on the outside of Kenji’s gang of friends. His wounded viewpoint consists of feeling smarter than the others but also keenly aware of how he’s left out of their plots. He may find what they do silly (or he may just be telling himself that to soothe the wound), but he still wants to be part of it, to belong. As kids, they’re selfish and thoughtless, unaware of how mean they’re being. It’s all complicated by his self-centered assumptions and willingness to be offended.
This chapter, even without remembering all the details of the bigger plot, is a wonderfully painful character study of being the outsider. I hadn’t thought of how the Friend came to be who he was from this internal focus previously. In many ways, he’s too much a cartoon super-villain for that, but Naoki Urasawa drags us inside his head, showing how the smallest action as a kid can have long-standing, unexpected influence later in life. After all, that’s the theme of the book, so it makes sense that that principle applies to all the characters, not just the “good” ones.
Still, even early on, this kid is manipulative and annoying. He’s focused only on what he wants and how others think of him, learning the power of information dropped in the right ear and the effect of playing on others’ beliefs. The previous scenes in the “haunted” house are revisited and elaborated upon to show more of his motivation, especially revealing how what matters to him is of no importance to anyone else. He seems to easily become obsessed, even to the point of it being considered mental illness. That may have been something the reader could figure out from previous events, but here, it’s both spookier and sadder, seen in a child who’s so mixed up about what should be important.
Urasawa’s staging is, as always, masterful, but it’s the characters’ expressions that really draw in the reader. I was marveling at how well he retells a classic story of a lonely child outsider, layered with creepy reminders of pieces of the tale we already know (including scenes of how the Friend’s coterie of assistants came together) … and just when it was getting really powerful, there’s a cliffhanger, and Urasawa flips us back to the future from the half-book flashback. Darn him!
Now, we’re in the post-plague world, where places have been quarantined and the near-superhuman Otcho is the only character we know. There’s yet more foreboding of doom, and perhaps one more chance to defeat the Friend and the world he’s built. It’s at these times, where the story leaps ahead once again, that my intellect thinks, “That’s a cheap trick to build suspense, cutting away and leaving yourself a gap where you can say anything happened.” Yet I’m still reading it, and I still want to see good win out in the end. Plus, Urasawa’s gorgeous scenes of rubble-filled village streets are cinematic in their appeal and detail.
20th Century Boys reminds me, in a way, of the Indiana Jones movies. They’re both a creator’s homage to the pulp entertainment they loved, and they’re both most enjoyable if you experience more than think about them. Because, in this case, the brain is going to point out just how much of a tease it all is, while the heart is hoping for Kenji to return once again, or for at least his spirit to live on.
(The publisher provided a review copy.)