by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
We’re either four or six (depending on how you count the two-volume 21st Century Boys, or whether Viz intends to include it as part of this series) books out from the finale of the now-longest manga series I’ve stuck with, and I’m feeling new excitement catching up on events.
The brief opening sequence reminds us of just how mindlessly lethal the Friend is, as well as establishing uncertainty about his identity (again!) and reminding us of the directness of Kanna’s mission to kill the world leader. It’s all conversation, among old men (and a girl) in boring business rooms, but somehow it’s strikingly dramatic. That’s what keeps me coming back to Naoki Urasawa’s work: his artistic skill. Even when I’m crazy ready for events to reveal themselves and frustrated with the length of the story, his detail and character expression are masterful and worth studying.
His digressions are often striking in themselves. For example, an old man, who might be Kenji, and the cop Chono are fishing. I’m not sure why, or how exactly this connects up with the main story, but it’s a great excuse for a conversation that encompasses the value of family memory and the need for vacation and how much more kindly we think of people after they pass.
This volume provides a number of short scenes catching up with characters from various points in the series. Usasawa is assembling his pieces across the board, ready for the final sweep. Except a board game isn’t the right metaphor, since that assumes a known set of rules and a certain mechanical progression. That’s far from what we get with Urasawa. Just when you think you know what’s coming, he’ll digress into bowling or the nature of reproduction in creating art or a new character introduction. I’m never sure who’s truly new and whom I’ve just forgotten about, but in this case, there are at least two: a shady cowboy-looking border smuggler and a tin-pot tiny dictator who fancies himself evil.
The major plot thread contained in this volume involves Chono and his companion trying to get back into Tokyo, which involves obtaining a transit permit in some fashion in a criminal-infested border town. (I just recently rewatched Casablanca, with its story involving missing letters of transit to eventually get the bearers to America, so I couldn’t help but notice the similarities. There’s also an aspect to the scary border fortress that reminded me of Labyrinth, but to say more would spoil a secret.) This segment is another example of how Urasawa takes an aspect of life under wartime occupation (or perhaps more accurate to say life under a tyrant) and spins it out into a vivid portrait, making it clear to the reader what it would be like to live in such devastated circumstances.
There are also surprising connections revealed in flashback, causing me to marvel at how elegantly certain strands come together. I was reminded of the power of the group, seeing true democracy in action as various strangers rallied together with their unique abilities and, more importantly, a willingness to fight for what they wanted. I get the feeling we get Urasawa’s summary of the story late in this volume, in the midst of a thrilling showdown, when one character tells another, “It’s hard being evil. It’s a lot easier being a good guy.” (The publisher provided a review copy.)