5.09.2011

20th Century Boys: 03

The first thing I typed in my notes when reading this volume was that if I was in the story and began recognizing the pattern of San Francisco, London, and the other occurrences duplicating the childhood story, I’d be assembling the group to try and predict what action would come next. So, it was nice to see Kenji try (albeit unsuccessfully) to do just that a few pages later, and then to see Yukiji successfully pull this off in his stead by the end of the book. That’s the type of realism we often complain about two dimensional characters lacking.

I seem to always be struck by Urasawa’s clever use of language. Kenji tells this divergent anecdote about playing The Beatles one night on his guitar. He says “What’s that got to do with anything? Nothing, I guess I just remembered that it happened.” This passage is really sly because it tricks us into believing that Kenji is recounting a real story, where some of the details don’t exist to advance the plot mechanics as they must in fictional stories, they only exist because they’re the type of peripheral detail that inhabits real life.

Visually, Urasawa shows off some more of his range. I particularly liked the way that the members of the band at the Friend Concert even possessed a Western look. Urasawa’s style here came off something more like Terry Moore, as he depicted the subversive influence of Western style rock n’ roll. I also really enjoyed the simplicity of Kenji cooking fried rice and flipping the rice against the edge of the wok to mix it. The speed lines are just right, the wok has texture, and we instantly understand the motion. It’s a nothing sequence, but it was so rich with realism.

There are examples of continued mystery, big and small, all over this volume. Kenji’s niece Kanna is now standing, the identity of her father moves onto the board, and in a larger sense, Urasawa seems to be analyzing the role that music represents to his tale. I did wonder why Kenji didn’t simply attempt to tear off the mask of Friend at the concert, but by avoiding it, we’re able to draw out the mystery and introduce the theory of Friend’s identity potentially being Sadakiyo. Of course, it doesn’t prove anything definitively, only that whoever Friend is was aware that Sadakiyo wore such a mask as a child.

Fukube is introduced at the class reunion as another new classmate, and I feel like that starts to push things into a predictable pattern. Childhood friends are introduced as possibly being Friend, and then each new theory is dismissed as it’s disproven. We thought maybe it was Donkey (who could have faked his death to become Friend), but then learn he was killed, we then think it’s perhaps Otcho (who disappeared and could have assumed the visage), but then learn he was seen in India, in comes Sadakiyo, Fukube, etc. While the pattern runs the risk of being rote, it does lend a real sense of paranoia that the actual Friend might be still among the dwindling group of friends. The mystery now possesses the added twist of the “spoon bending incident,” and I was certainly moved by the attempted kidnapping of Kanna. The Friend Agents are attacking in swarms like brainwashed zombies in a chilling sequence.

It’s almost as if you see some of the characters now exhibiting psychological manifestations of survivor’s guilt, which I enjoy as a cultural stand-in for survivor’s guilt from the nuclear holocaust that punctuated the end of WWII. That thread also makes me wonder if Urasawa’s influence of post WWII reconstructionism not only causes the theme of free will vs. pre-determined fate, but also sends an inherent anti-war message as well. That’s certainly an additional theme I got from another of his works, Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka, but I’m digressing. But, yes, I am already spreading out to begin reading another Urasawa book, the 8 volumes of Pluto that essentially retell and re-contextualize the famous story of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. End digression. For now! You’ll probably see me reviewing Pluto when I’m finally done with 20th Century Boys.

With the end of the world a couple of years away supposedly, the consequences of actions seems to be heating up. It’s interesting to view this through the lense of the debate between a pre-determined destiny or fate and man’s own free will. In other words, will there be strict adherence to The Book of Prophecy or will the kids manage to make their own future? There are cliffhangers, airport bombs, cities in danger, Yukiji providing a crash pad, and the rapid introduction of Shogun. There’s an exponential increase to the cast, pace, and stakes, which makes for one hell of a ride.

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