30 Jun, 2010

Manga Recon @ the Movies: 20th Century Boys 1 (Beginning of the End) and 2 (The Last Hope)

By: Guest Reviewer

This guest review was submitted by Noah Fulmor.

VIZ Pictures, Inc.
20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (run time: 142 minutes)
20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (run time: 140 minutes)

In the twenty-some-odd years since Akira established itself as the first Japanese sci-fi epic with serious international crossover potential, nothing has come close to eclipsing either its vision or its popularity in the genre. Nothing, that is, until Naoki Urasawa’s manga series 20th Century Boys, a world-spanning tale of apocalyptic conspiracies by way of childhood nostalgia. The 20+ volume story has been adapted into a trilogy of films, with the last installment intended for DVD release in America on June 1, 2010. Sadly, despite a uniquely compelling plot filled with vibrant and interesting characters, the prior two films failed so profoundly to deliver on the promise of the manga, what should have been a ‘thrilling conclusion’ has warranted barely the slightest tremor of excitement from the fan community.

The story revolves around Kenji, a thirtysomething in 1997 Tokyo whose rock star career fizzled into helping his mother manage a convenience store and looking after his runaway sister’s abandoned daughter Kanna. Oblivious to the greater forces at work, he is reunited with some of his childhood pals following the death, under suspicious circumstances, of one of their number. Investigation soon reveals the involvement of a new but rapidly growing cult, centered on the personality of a masked guru who calls himself ‘Friend,’ and claims to possess marvelous psionic powers. As the faction grows in influence and their true agenda of widespread mayhem and world domination becomes clear, Kenji discovers, to his utter disbelief, that Friend is following a plan mapped out by Kenji and his friends themselves in the heady days of the early 1970s, when they were all just neighborhood kids playing pretend.

This is such a solid premise, and so much of the groundwork is laid for a film adaptation before a screenplay would even need to be written, that it’s hard to see how a director could fail to deliver a solid movie. Indeed, not only does the manga provide plot, dialogue and storyboard, it even delivers an awesome soundtrack informed by all the Rock & Roll Kenji and his companions were soaking up in their childhood hideout. The driving opening chords of the T. Rex standard that gives the series its title captures perfectly the fin de siecle mood and pursues Kenji like the unanswered promises of the past.

It’s a terrible disappointment then, with all the overwhelming advantages that the material presents, that director Yukihiko Tsutsumi cannot find the cinematic glue to hold these elements together. He seems hard-pressed to follow the emotional beats of the story, instead relying on glossy J-pop video-style cinematography to stand in for deep, meaningful moments. Two instances are painfully noteworthy. When Kenji narrowly rescues Kanna from a shop full of cultists who have suddenly taken an uncanny interest in her, the weight of the experience compels him to snatch up his long-abandoned guitar from storage and reconnect with the rebellious strength of the music to which he was once totally devoted. It is a crucial scene and should burn with a fiery, intimate intensity… yet Tsutsumi films it with all the cloying sensitivity of a Gackt video. Then, nearing the film’s climax, Tsutsumi makes a point of dragging out the cliched ‘band of brothers’-style monologue that Kenji delivers to his rag-tag group of misfits for an excruciatingly long time, making certain to hit every star-filtered false note repeatedly. The scene is an industry standard, but in a work that is so aggressively original it falls completely flat.

It is no help, either, that the long-awaited confrontation at the end of the first movie is instead replaced by an ellipsis, only to pick up fifteen years later. Subtitled ‘The Last Hope,’ the second film follows Kanna, now a young woman, as she makes her way through a Friend-dominated future. Despite her close relation to Kenji (who has been branded as Public Enemy No. 1 despite missing since the events of the previous film), Kanna is allowed to live a fairly normal life as a high school student and part-time waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Her natural charisma and do-gooder streak puts her between warring gang factions, corrupt police and transvestites in distress. What finally gets her in trouble is her insistence on questioning the official story surrounding the events of the ‘Bloody New Years Eve’ terrorist attack allegedly initiated by her uncle, which results in Kanna, along with a dim classmate, finding themselves shipped off to a re-education camp known as ‘Friend Land.’

At this point, the film takes what should be a harrowing demonstration of cult indoctrination and turns it into a trip to a moderately grating Orwell-themed summer camp. There is nothing new here; the staff are brainwashed and the kids become brainwashed and are made to conform. It’s such a well-worn genre trope at this point that the filmmaker doesn’t even bother to try to bring anything unique to it. It should come as no surprise, then, that beneath the horrible veneer of Friend Land, in a camouflaged secret base, one of Kenji’s old associates leads a clutch of the resistance and hopes to help Kanna discover Friend’s identity. How the Friend Land operators could maintain a sophisticated totalitarian observation network throughout the camp but fail to discover the insurgents living on their property is left up to the imagination of the viewer.

The plot zigzags from here, jumping from one time period to the next, snaking through a virtual-reality representation of the past, around subplots involving Kanna’s parentage, the genesis of a deadly virus, the daring escape of one of Kenji’s bunch from a Stalag-like prison, an assassination attempt on Friend’s life… middle movies are often messy, but ‘The Last Hope’ is a narrative miasma that winds up resembling the sort of free-form make-believe Kenji’s gang engaged in as children. This is fine for kids; when they are fully immersed in play, their imagination can fill in the gaps (or dismiss them) as their whims require. A commercially released film is expected to be far more refined.

One is forced to reserve full judgment of the overarching story as a whole until completing the third installment, but it is difficult to see how the final film, no matter how well-wrought, will be able to reach backwards and impose some order on what has come before it. Unfortunately, after watching the first two movies, the viewer is left with the experience that rather than being in the midst of a sci-fi epic, they are in the midst of a sci-fi epic being recounted from memory by an excitable eight-year-old boy. The end result will satisfy neither genre fans, nor moviegoers.

20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End and 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope are available now. The third movie, subtitled Redemption, has also just been released on DVD by VIZ Pictures.

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