20th Century Boys 1: The Beginning of the End (Viz Pictures, NR)

20cb_header.jpgI enjoyed watching this: it has that crazy mix of genres and conventions which you often find in Japanese film and has the added benefit of not taking itself too seriously.

The film trilogy based on 20th Century Boys, the award-winning manga by Naoki Urasawa (who also created Monster and Yawara!), has attracted considerable interest in part because at 6 billion yen (about 60 million dollars) it’s the most expensive Japanese film project ever. I know that’s chump change compared to the reported 200-260 million dollars Roland Emmerich spent bringing the earth to the brink of destruction in 2012 or the 230 million James Cameron is said to have spent on whatever it is that happens in Avatar but it’s still a considerable investment.

I’m going to confess up front that I saw the first DVD installment of 20th Century Boys as a series virgin. I haven’t read the manga so I can’t tell you how well the film does or doesn’t reflect the published version of the story, nor can I rely on my knowledge of the series from other sources to fill in whatever gaps may exist in the film. This is a review based strictly on my experience in watching the DVD.

The story of 20th Century Boys takes place in three historical periods and the film frequently jumps between them (helpfully providing on-screen dates so you can keep track of where the film is in time). The first action is set in 1969 when the schoolboys Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) and his friends (Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Teruyuki Kagawa, Hidehiko Ishizuka and Katsuhisa Namase) form a secret society complete with a clubhouse they built by knotting reeds together. When they’re not busy reading stolen porno magazines they write a story about the end of the world which they call The Book of Prophecy and make a flag marking their turf which features a symbol they’ve invented: a pointing hand superimposed over an eye.

Jump ahead 18 years and Kenji, who once dreamed of becoming a rock star (the title is a reference to Marc Bolan’s song 20th Century Boy) now works at a convenience store with his mother (Tomiko Ishii) and tends to his infant niece Kanna. But mysterious things are happening all around him: one of his former pals is killed by a fall out of a window, people are dropping dead in the streets from an Ebola-like disease and a series of catastrophic events mirroring those named in The Book of Prophecy are actually taking place. This is a bit worrying because one of the predictions is that the city of Tokyo will be attacked on December 31, 2000 by a robot which will ultimately destroy all of mankind.

A mysterious cult with a leader called "Friend" seems to be behind the deadly events so Kenji and his pals band together to try to figure out who "Friend" is. They have a good inkling because he wears a mask featuring the secret symbol from their clubhouse flag and because he seems to have read The Book of Prophecy. And there was that weird kid on the fringe of their circle who sometimes wore a cartoon mask…

The third time period, which receives less attention in the first film, jumps ahead to 2015 or so, meaning that you can rest assured that this fictional world does not end on the brink of the 21st century. Presumably events set in this later period will occupy more of the second and third films.

I enjoyed watching 20th Century Boys 1: The Beginning of the End: it has that crazy mix of genres and conventions which you often find in Japanese film and has the added benefit of not taking itself too seriously. This is a very self-aware film which can make fun of cinematic conventions then get back to telling its story without dropping a beat. The actors are engaging and it’s easy to match up their child and adult versions because, as is typical in manga, each has prominent physical and personality characteristics which differentiate him or her from the others. Toshiaki Karasawa is particularly good as a sort of everyman who does the best he can in a life quite different from what he intended, while Takako Tokiwa is totally believable as a tomboy who grew up to be a beautiful woman but can still toss the boys over her shoulder if need be.

As a thriller 20th Century Boys 1 is less successful. Tons of characters are introduced without being developed and it’s easy to get lost with all the jumping around in time. The special effects are nothing to write home about although they are partially salvaged by director Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s refusal to take the whole Armageddon premise too seriously. It’s really hard to believe that the world will be destroyed by a robot resembling a giant carwash (it sprays people with a virus which causes them to bleed to death) but in Tsutsumi’s filmic world it makes sense simply because it is so ridiculous.

While there are a few good scares they’re not enough to satisfy a hard-core horror fan and the plot is strewn with obviously-planted cliff-hangers (the first film ends with one worthy of parody in a Simpsons episode) which suggest that the screenplay may be following the manga a little too closely. Maybe all the pipe laid in the first film will pay off in the second and third when they can stop introducing characters and show us some more action: we’ll have to wait for the release of the 2nd and 3rd films on DVD to see.

In the mean time, if you are at all interested in Japanese film 20th Century Boys is definitely worth checking out. You can learn more about the project and watch the trailers for the first film at http://www.20thboysfilms.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh

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