20th Century Boys Volume 4
Review by Ed Sizemore
**Warning: This review contains spoilers.**
With this volume, the narrative jumps ahead three years to the summer of 2000. We finally discover what happened to Otcho since he disappeared twelve years ago in 1988. We also discover what happened to Professor Sikishima and his family. Remember, volume 1 opened with police investigating the Sikishima family’s disappearance.
On a structural level, 20th Century Boys volume 4 is really about tying up some loose ends and reintroducing Otcho into the main storyline. In a sense, Naoki Urasawa is paying back his debt to the reader. Otcho was the red herring of the first two-and-a-half volumes. Urasawa owes us an explanation of where Otcho’s been and what he’s been doing. Especially since Otcho is the one who created the club and its distinctive symbol.
The previous three books have featured Kenji’s reluctant transformation into a hero. This volume is the story of Otcho’s metamorphosis. He starts out following the typical Japanese male life plan. He studies hard, goes to college, gets a corporate job, gets married, and has a child. All the while, he focuses more time and energy on his career than his family. It takes the death of his son for Otcho to break free of this drone mentality. After taking an honest look at his life, Otcho decides to literally leave it all behind and begin a new life in Thailand.
Otcho finds a spiritual mentor and begins the process of reshaping his life. I love Urasawa’s definition of personal strength. The strong aren’t the physically powerful, they are the ones who care so deeply for others that they will fight to the death to protect them. It’s not the Western model of the individuals forging forward in isolation. Urasawa is rejecting the Clint Eastwood/lone gunfighter concept of a hero. Here it isn’t incidental that the true hero is part of a community — it’s essential. This encapsulates what we learned watching Kenji take on the mantle of saving the world.
Reading Otcho’s back story, I couldn’t help but feel that Urasawa was making a critique of the Japanese business ethos. He finds a corporate culture that sacrifices family for profits to be morally bankrupt. We were given a glimpse of this when Kenji is told by the franchise representative that caring for Kanna is a hindrance to good sales. It becomes starkly clear when Otcho is such an absentee father that his son is killed while chasing after a business man he mistakes for Otcho. I wondered if Urasawa was indirectly implying the Japan bubble economy popped because of this fundamental flaw. That businesses, like individuals, need to be deeply connected to the community for strength and health.
Volume four also reinforces the idea that there is nobility and honor within all of us. Otcho may have given up on himself and lived in self-imposed exile, but Kenji still has faith in his childhood friend. The core members of Kenji’s resistance group are homeless men. Urasawa believes passionately that no one is beyond a second chance. The people we think are useless, broken, used up, or irrevocably fallen can still have it in them to do great things. They just need someone to believe in them and give them the opportunity to live up to their potential. It’s an encouraging message that even we the readers can still change our life and our world for the better. The only thing holding us back is our own limited self-perception.
It’s getting harder to find original ways to praise Urasawa’s artwork. And with eighteen volumes still to go, the problem’s only going to get worst. Urasawa is the consummate comics creator; he knows how to seamlessly blend the art into the storytelling. This allows him an economy of narration. He can say in a couple of panels what might take several paragraphs to convey. By illustrating it, the point or emotion comes across as more real and immediate than prose might be able to capture.
For example, the way Otcho’s world shatters at the news of his son’s accident is conveyed in just two panels, but we see and feel it all in those two pictures. Another example is when we first meet Kenji in this volume, we immediately see that he is more serious, more focused than when we last saw him. We feel the weight of those last three years on him. The visuals are truly stunning.
20th Century Boys continues to be an excellent series with a meticulously crafted plot with real depth to the story and characters. Urasawa conclusively demonstrates that comics can convey stories as dense and layered as any novel. Comic readers should be championing this as one of the series that proves graphic novels are worthy of that name and have come to full maturity. 20th Century Boys is a must read for readers of all stripes. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)
Wow, what a terrific analysis. You found so much in this book that I missed — I want to reread it now in light of your comments. When I first read this installment, I thought of it as “part 3 of 4” of a superhero miniseries: just getting the pieces in place for an upcoming chapter, and filling the spaces with action just so something happens. But I hadn’t realized how much parallelism there was with Otcho and Kenji.
Also, I found the satire of giant robot builders funny.
Yes, exactly what Johanna said. I had difficulty getting into this volume because I wanted to follow Kenji’s story but your analysis of *why* it makes sense to look at Otcho’s life really resonates with me. Which means, yes, I need to re-read volume 4 (hopefully when I’m less tired).
That review didn’t just contain *some* spoilers, it almost gave away the whole book! I’m glad I read the book before the reveiw!
That said, if Otcho’s self-punishment and isolation (physically in a foreign land and mentally, by keeping his distance from others to the point that no one knows his name) is his repentance for his son’s death, why did he have to abandon his wife? She ends up being an unseen victim, losing both her son and husband. I couldn’t help feeling bad for her (and thinking that they should at least divorce).
The book is a fun read so far, but I wouldn’t look for deep moral messages just yet (you’ve never seen the “you must protect others to be truly strong” cliche in shonen manga before?)
The giant robot scene was hysterical, though! ;)
You make a good point about this being, for the most part, still a “boys’ adventure” tale. Women aren’t part of the key group.
Kenji says ‘ex-wife’ when telling Otcho how he tracked him down, so my impression is that they are divorced. Plus Otcho was just as much an absentee husband as father. He’s atoning for it all.
Urasawa is saying more than the strong protect the weak. It’s not a question of ethics. Urasawa is saying the essence of strength comes from our connection to other people. We have to have someone we care so deeply about that we can’t stand the thought of either losing them or harm coming to them. When our desire to protect them comes from our love for them then we are truly strong. Strength is anchored in love for another. Kenji is only able to become a hero when Kanna comes into his life. It is his love for her that becomes the source of his strength. That is not the cliché so readily found in shonen manga.
I think the boys’ adventure tendencies at this point are kind of deliberate, seeing as a boys’ adventure is the source of everything that’s happening.
(I’ve seen the first movie, which covers up to the next volume or two, so there are things I have to hold my tongue on here….)
Oh, yeah, definitely, I wouldn’t expect a bunch of 8-year-old boys in the 1960s to hang around with many girls. It’s just something I find it helpful to remember when reading.
Oops. I checked the text and Kenji does say “ex-wife,” though another character refers to Otcho’s “wife,” present-tense. That’s what got me confused.
I see “20th Century Boys” quite literally as a shonen tale, all grown up. You see characters as boys, fantasizing about giant robots and ray guns, then you see adult characters bringing these ideas terrifiyingly to life.
I agree that Kenji was reshaped by Kanna, and I think that Otcho is an awesome character.
Oh, and there is a girl in their group of friends. We just haven’t seen her in a while. I can’t wait ’till she shows up again!