Thursday, September 20, 2012

20th Century Boys

Naoki Urasawa
Viz, 2009, 210 pp., $12.99
ISBN: 978-1-59116-922-2 

I'm a huge fan of comic books and graphic novels, but I have considerably less experience reading manga, the Japanese equivalent of comics.  I'm not sure why that's the case, though I attribute it in part to the fact that I grew up in the days before Pokémon and anime took hold of American popular culture.  I'm also intimidated by the never-ending array of manga titles that line bookstore shelves and make it difficult for a novice to know where to begin.  In the past, students I've taught have attempted to turn me on to manga by pointing me in the direction of popular series such as Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and Rurouni Kenshin, but none of them have ever appealed to me.  Two years ago, however, while reading the local newspaper, I came across a review of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, and I was sufficiently intrigued to purchase the first book in the eight-volume set.  I was immediately hooked, and finished the series in less than a week. 

This past spring, struggling to find a new graphic novel I could read, I asked a clerk at my local comic book store what he'd recommend.  Knowing that I'd enjoyed Pluto, he asked whether I was familiar with 20th Century Boys, another series by Urasawa.  I told him I wasn't, and he went on to tell me that it was popular with local high school students, so much so that the store struggled to keep the books on its shelves.  Given my interest in literature for teenagers, his recommendation struck me as serendipitous, and I purchased the first volume in the series.  Since then I've read the next twelve books, and I'm once again drawn into the visually rich world Urasawa constructs.  

Condensing a narrative that spans some twenty volumes is no small chore, and what follows cannot possibly begin to capture the complexity of Urasawa's story.  The plot of 20th Century Boys shifts between three time periods.  In one of the earliest scenes, set at the United Nations headquarters in the twenty-first century, the world's leaders have convened to honor a group of individuals credited with having rescued humanity from the brink of annihilation.  Just before their identities are revealed, however, the narrative shifts to Tokyo in the late 1990s, and readers are introduced to Kenji, a young man in his thirties who, despite having dreamed of greatness as a child, has settled for running his parents' liquor store, which he converted into a mini-mart, and raising his missing sister's child.  Though some of his childhood friends moved away, others remain in the city, settling, like Kenji, for a comfortable, albeit monotonous, middle class existence.  

Against this background we learn that a cult founded and led by a mysterious figure known only as "the Friend" has grown prominent in Japan, attracting a considerable following and exercising power in both social and political circles.  Indeed, the organization plans to extend the scope of its reach by enacting a carefully orchestrated sequence of attacks designed to culminate in the release of a deadly virus on New Year's Eve 2000, sparking mass panic and causing a global contagion that it alone has the power to halt. 

A third timeline finds Kenji and his friends as children in the late 1960s.  While on summer vacation, they construct a grass fortress where they pass time reading manga and playing games.  To entertain themselves, they also co-author a story, the Book of Prophecy, which positions them as heroes battling a band of villains bent on achieving world domination.  Only the group's innermost members are familiar with the Book of Prophecy, and they later bury it in a time capsule. As adults, Kenji and his friends recognize that the events surrounding the Friend's rise to power bear a distinct resemblance to the stories they told one another as children, and they conclude that the cult's leader must have been an acquaintance in their youth.  The remainder of the series alternates between these time periods as the protagonists fight to reveal the Friend's true identify and thwart his plans to destroy the world. 

In preparing to write this review, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what it is that attracts me to Urasawa's work.  As I mentioned earlier, I don't customarily read manga, though I have a great deal of respect for much of the work coming out of Japan today.  Likewise, I'm not particularly drawn to futuristic stories about the perils of abusing technology, though I do enjoy a good science fiction story on occasion.  In the end, I think my affinity for Urasawa's work stems largely from his ability to craft visually rich, compelling narratives that revolve around complex, well-developed characters.  A master storyteller, Urasawa appreciates the importance of revealing background information gradually, the result of which allows him to draw a story out while offering readers an impetus to continue reading for answers.  Equally important, he has a Hitchockian flare for building and maintaining suspense in a story, something he accomplishes through the use of well conceived page breakdowns which allow him to control the tempo of his narratives.  Most importantly, his characters ring true, no matter how unbelievable the scenes in which they find themselves. They are psychologically complex, multidimensional figures, and I invariably find them human, a result, perhaps, of the fact that Urasawa has the luxury of developing their personae over an extended period of time.  Heroes and villains alike are imperfect, and their motivations for behaving in particular ways are never easily explained.  A scientist driven by a desire to prevent disease and suffering unwittingly plays a role in developing a virus that is later used to annihilate thousands of people.  Another character, lonely and taken in by a charlatan, recognizes his culpability in abetting a series of crimes only after it is too late, and attempts to redeem himself by betraying the very figure to whom he'd pledged his allegiance.  A strong willed teenage girl, driven by the loss of her mother and uncle, risks being consumed by the fires of revenge to hold those responsible for their deaths accountable.  These emphatic characters are made all the more so because of their imperfections.

The downside to reading manga, of course, is that stories are played out over several volumes, which can make seeing a series through from beginning to end a pricey undertaking.  That said, for readers who enjoy a good thriller, 20th Century Boys is well worth the investment.  A gripping action- and suspense-filled story, it is, like Urasawa’s other work, highly entertaining and fun to read.  

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