by Naoki Urasawa; adapted by Akemi Wegmuller
published by Viz; $12.99 US
It’s been a long time since I’ve followed a manga series to this length, and honestly, I probably need to reread the whole thing in bigger chunks to appreciate the subtleties before talking about it in depth. (But who has the time?) And although the series concludes with these two books, it’s not really over — that will happen in the two-volume followup 21st Century Boys.
Even when I’m not so sure how far we are along in the story, or what the status is of the various conspiracies, the art is amazing, as I’d expect from Naoki Urasawa. His flow, pacing, and character expressions are so cinematic, but not in the sense that he wants to be working in some other medium than comics. It’s that he thinks through how to guide the reader’s emotional reactions and portrays what’s needed to accomplish it, beautifully.
I will say that Book 21 really encapsulates the theme that began the series, the idea that the right, rebellious music can change the world. It opens with a crazy DJ, left broadcasting over the radio without even knowing if anyone can hear him. He encounters another character we haven’t seen for a long while, all under an atmosphere of looming dread made all the more creepy by being set in an abandoned cookie factory. What could go wrong in a sweet place? A lot, it turns out, since evil comes from people. However, the DJ also demonstrates that in some cases, it’s not too late for a second chance.
Since we are getting near the end, many former cast members reappear, including one of my favorites, the former gangster priest we met in Book 15. At first glance, this interlude is frustrating, since it doesn’t directly relate to the core group we think we’re following, but at this point, the story is really about what life would be like in a totalitarian regime and how different character types would react.
One immensely important scene (I think) happens a third of the way through this volume, as the returned Kenji, now a modern post-apocalyptic take on the wandering troubadour, reacts to the news that the Friend has announced that the new Expo will be held forever. Kenji says,
You can’t hold an Expo forever, jeez. [...]
Our future awaited us there… our 21st century…
Only thing is… I didn’t get to go…
It was almost like I’d gone, I got to know it so well…
I practically lived there in my imagination.
For Expo, I read future, and his statements also relate to the problem of growing up. You can’t keep anticipating it, and you can’t keep living in your fantasy of what you’re going to be. At some point, you have to cope with where you really are, no matter how well it matches (or fails to match) your dreams. It’s also fascinating to see how many different people remember events differently, focusing on what caused most pain to them, even to the extent of coming up with conflicting stories for the same situation.
20th Century Boys is like the world’s biggest action movie, one that extends a lot longer than two hours but keeps ramping up the suspense the whole time. Just like one of those, there are all kinds of people we keep checking in with, until we finally can’t wait to see the final confrontation.
In Book 22, it’s Kenji’s song that prevents fear in the populace and rallies them to a place where they might be safe. Music is what brings people together and what takes people back to their most authentic selves. I’m not entirely sure what happens at the end, although I do like the way an honest representation of understanding your own mistakes short-circuits those who want a more dramatic confrontation of good and evil.