20th Century Boys: 02
This volume propmptly introduces Manjome Inshu, the enigmatic right-hand figure that made me think of the late Pete Postlethwaite’s “Kobayashi” in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. He’s endlessly maddening to the characters he interacts with, but entertaining for the reading audience because of it. He talks in circles, half answers, and never quite confirms anything except that Kenji is a central figure in the telling of a prophecy.
Naoki Urasawa continues his clever and self-aware use of language. Kenji actually slightly breaks the fourth wall at one point and talks directly to us during his narration, commenting that he could throw even more adjectives at his description to make someone sound more evil. Later, the gang describes someone as “the shadowy figure," so that the characters are commenting on the very archetypes that the author is using. I enjoy stuff like that immensely; these passages always stand out as someone who’s writing at a level beyond most writers working in the industry today. Another example that zings by before you even have much time to notice is the way that Kenji casually refers to his new guitar as a “machine gun,” with no explanation or commentary whatsoever. It’s interesting to view the power that object has through his eyes.
Yukiji, the young Customs Officer, gets some screen time, and she’s a guarded, beautiful, capable young woman who I instantly like. Her biggest psychological driver early on is that she has very high expectations of Kenji. So many times in pop culture, female characters are stand-ins for a greater force. I feel like she is already the embodiment of Japan itself, and her expectations of Kenji are so high, because according to the prophecy, he’s supposed to save the world. Yukiji’s expectations for Kenji (and to an extent, his group of friends) feel like Japan’s expectations for their younger generation. I think this is a central philosophical tenet of the book.
The cast pieces together that childhood friend Otcho created the symbol, and thus you are lead right into thinking that Otcho is “Friend.” That theory is backed up by the connections made by the Police Investigators, but it’s all too soon, and frankly, too easy. I have a hard time accepting that as ultimate fact, it could be a red herring this early on in the narrative, but it’s still a creepy prospect.
We learn a lot in this volume; Urasawa does answer questions, but also introduces more in the process. Donkey’s death was not suicide, the other friend assumed missing in Thailand was actually seen in India, and the big question driving the tale seems to be “Who is Friend?” and why is he/she basing their actions on Kenji’s young playtime story? This pair of cops is essentially a set of throwaway characters, but they’re done so well, as fully realized people. Just when one of them is about to make amends with his estranged daughter, he’s killed. Not only does it break our heart, but we learn that there are also Friend “Agents” in high places within the government, which smartly establishes that the gang can’t seek help from the authorities. Kamisama, the old man “God,” also gets time to develop, as does Kenji’s sister and her motives in seemingly abandoning her baby. Urasawa really makes an effort to flesh out the core cast and link them all to the larger mystery, such as the mysterious killing of the sister’s would-be suitor. It’s a complex world where everything is interconnected and you know in your heart there are no coincidences in this story. I liked, for example, that Yukiji’s friend that we previously met with no explanation, is actually a lawyer connected to the case. The cause of recent deaths is confirmed to be a virus, and the deaths are spreading to San Francisco and London, in line with Kenji’s make believe story as prophecy. The cliffhanger here is bold, essentially directing Kenji to “save the world.” Urasawa pushes every aspect of the story forward, propelling the plot rapidly, but also providing masterful character development.
I previously referred to the art as “cartoony,” which admittedly gives it short shrift without highlighting its capabilities. First off, I was primarily referring to the facial expressions, because the backgrounds and remainder of the figure work are all alive with realistic detail. One reader left a comment which characterized Urasawa’s dynamic as “plasticity,” which is a term that feels more accurate, so I’ll be stealing that. This plasticity allows a range of very versatile rendering. For example, old man Kamisama possesses the wrinkled visage of an old saggy street walker, so even without any text we’d recognize the character. Similarly, the cops come off gruff because of their square-jawed portrayal. Urasawa uses this strong visual shorthand, able to fill in the personality of his characters with visual stylization, like all the best artists do.