Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, vol. 4
Story and Art by Naoki Urasawa
With the cooperation of Takashi Nagasaki
English Adaptation by Akemi Wegmuller
Original Japanese edition: Shogakukan, 2001
Naoki Urasawa now has three different series available in English from Viz, and I suspect if you asked any group of manga readers to choose their favorite, they would be evenly split among the three. So far as I can tell, 20th Century Boys, Pluto and Monster are basically comparable when considered as works of craft. The art, the plotting, the characterization: those elements shine in all three. Okay, there are some slight variations in the quality of the art, especially for Monster, which is a rather earlier work, but overall these are pretty much equally polished pieces of sequential art. So choosing among them thus becomes largely a matter of taste. What genre tropes speak to you? If you love suspense and murder mysteries, you’ll probably like Monster. If you enjoy old school science fiction, perhaps you’ll lean more toward Pluto.
And if you’re like me and have an incurable weakness for ridiculous shōnen manga, mecha anime, and rock music, you will probably think 20th Century Boy is pure genius.
[Note: The remainder of this review has some fairly big spoilers for the events of this volume.]
The first half of volume 4 focuses on “Shogun” in Thailand. As everyone probably guessed (and Urasawa’s excellent character designs made obvious), “Shogun” is Otcho, another of Kenji’s childhood friends, now all grown up. Following the death of his son in a traffic accident, Otcho has been living in the Bangkok underground, doing odd jobs for the guy who forges his visa. But when Friend claims a victim from Otcho’s circle of acquaintances, Otcho has to decide whether he will fight beside Kenji or not.
(The depiction of Otcho’s transformation into Shogun, courtesy of an encounter with cryptic monk in the jungles of Thailand, is both a funny and troubling twist on the very tired colonial trope in Western storytelling where white men discover their true selves with the aid of Asian gurus. It’s funny because Otcho is very much Japanese, but troubling because of Japan’s position as a colonial power for the first half of the twentieth century.)
The outcome of Otcho’s decision is fairly predictable, but the setup is sublime. Otcho’s present day situation–we are now in the year 2000 within the story–is juxtaposed with another incident from Otcho and Kenji’s childhood: the destruction of their secret base. Kenji rushes off to confront the evil twins, who are responsible, and the rest of the gang turns to Otcho to rescue Kenji from his own impulsive heroism. The implications of the parallels are fairly obvious; the story posits that the only difference between standing up to the evilest twins in the world and standing up to Friend is one of scale–the actual morality of the choice remains the same. Readers can choose to take or leave this narrative argument, but it’s certainly the closest to a thesis that this series has given us so far.
When Otcho returns to Japan, he finds Kenji bracing for humanity’s final hour as he and Otcho imagined it as kids. (Don’t miss the panels where Otcho introduces himself to three-year-old Kanna; it’s very much a moment where he takes back his old identity with his nickname.) And of course, the latest threat involves a giant robot. There’s a fantastic scene where Friend’s followers describe what they want from the robot to an actual robotocist, Professor Shikishima. Friend’s followers argue like twelve-year-old Gundam fans, while the professor cringes in his chair at their blithe disconnect from reality. When the professor’s finally given the chance to speak, he completely deconstructs the very notion of giant robots as plausible weapons–only to be told that Friend prefers that the robot is atomically powered.
The scene is very neat snapshot of the multiple levels of storytelling going on in 20th Century Boys at any given moment. In this, the series reminds me a little of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena; all three use the tropes of a genre to deconstruct that very same genre. 20th Century Boys is in some ways a ridiculous shōnen manga especially for adults who grew up reading such manga, but it’s also a critique of that same type of story. And of course, 20th Century Boys is so rich with allusions, not just to manga but also to the history of rock music. Urasawa manages to reference rock and roll’s 27 club in the same volume where he sneaks in allusions to Astro Boy and baseball; this is no mean feat. And while you can enjoy this series without catching everything that’s going on–I am sure that there’s plenty I’m missing–it is definitely a work that rewards careful reading and re-reading.
That’s all for my thoughts on this volume; look for a post on volume 5 after it’s released in October.