*21st Century Boys Book 1 — Recommended

For those of you who, like me, were left a little confused by the conclusion of 20th Century Boys, you want this book, the first of a two-volume sequel series.

The first chapter summarizes the events we should remember (which I found immensely helpful). Everyone’s at the music festival, there’s a UFO attack masterminded by the Friend, who’s decided, screw it, he’s just going to destroy the world. Again. (At this point, I’m adopting a very Buddhist cyclical view of events, because that’s the best way to cope with the recurring plot structures of this series. There is nothing new under the sun, and we’re doomed to repeat even things we remember. More on that later.) The attack is stopped, at the cost of a few lives, and one character is redeemed at the end and given his fondest desire: to be one of the group.

It’s at that point that I began realizing that I might have been evaluating this story the wrong way all along. It’s one of the classic differences between Japanese and American society, the importance of fitting in vs. rampant individualism. Kenji isn’t the hero here, although to an American reader, he seems closest, having gone on a traditional solo quest — most of which we don’t see. The book is about protecting society, and how culture reinvents itself in the midst of tragedy and chaos, and how someone can become a world-changing villain just because they felt left out of the gang when they were all kids together. The Friend succeeds for so long because so many people want a group to belong to, after all.

Another of the deaths demonstrates the obvious — someone assumes that they’re known, that they’re important, when they’re really not. Still, his passing is something to be sad about, in my mind, because the death of one member diminishes us all.

So, I had lots of big thoughts, and that was only the first chapter, so I was already liking this a lot. I wasn’t caring as much about what happened as how the characters were affected. Although there’s another big threat to stop, this time an “anti-proton bomb”. Before that, many of the cast members, now gathered together, tell each other what happened, which helps either remind or clarify things for readers like me.

Much of the book involves flashbacks to when the cast were all kids together, which is the part Naoki Urasawa truly excels at. He gets right how children think and act and what they care about. If you want mind-blowing, an adult version of one character loops around and meets his kid version. There’s some kind of SF explanation for this, set up a while back, but the real point is that we have to face the people we thought we’d be against who we really became.

I blanch at the idea of even trying to describe how great Urasawa’s art is. It’s incredibly cinematic, not in the “I really wish I was making movies” sense or even in the “if I draw bigger pictures I can draw few of them” way. It’s like a movie in that the scope is immense, yet we’re skillfully drawn along by virtue of the artist’s framing choices to follow the emotional high points and feel the dread and fear and exhilaration and concern of the characters.

We don’t see a lot of Kanna this go-round, but she has one key scene where two significant (at least to me) things happen. The first is the quintessential crisis of spirit expressed by someone who had been caught up in big events for most of their lives: What now? What should she do now that her purpose is no longer necessary? The second is sillier — she brings a sick friend a comic book, which she reviews:

“These aren’t all that good… I like Japanese manga a lot better myself. I bet you do too.”

The most important lesson comes two-thirds of the way in, when we learn about the success, as a rule, of “the copy of the copy”, or the third person to try something. (Remember the theme of repetition?) I kept remembering Lewis Carroll’s promise, as I learnt it from Robert Heinlein, “What I tell you three times is true.” Or “third time’s the charm.” In the case of this story, that may end up referring to the number of times I have to reread it to understand all the nuances! (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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  1. […] in the previous book, we get a revisitation of a threat from earlier in the series — this time, it’s another […]

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