August 22, 2009
Hmmm. There's a lot of hype around this trilogy of Japanese films, but I'm here to help reset your expectations. Japanese films have far smaller budgets than American ones, and while the first 20th Century Boys looks good, it resembles an expensive American TV mini-series.
The story starts when Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) reluctantly attends a school reunion. He discovers a link between a series of murders and kidnappings, with the innocent fantasies of his childhood gang of friends. As the grown-ups struggle to remember the details of their young imaginary adventures, the modern-day chaos starts to escalate.
The viewpoint expertly flips between their present and their childhoods, centred on a 20-year old mystery, reminiscent of the intrigue in Watchmen. As the middle-aged gang remember that they once made up a series of prophecies about an evil enemy terrorising Japan, the race is on to prevent it becoming reality. The suspense of an impending disaster reminded me of the first season of Heroes.
But the difference is that the 20th Century Boys have no superpowers. Kenji runs a convenience store - his life seems to have peaked early when he used to be a rock star! The others have various low-key jobs and one of the boys is a girl - at least she knows judo!
My biggest problem was that it took a long 90 minutes before anything vaguely epic happened. Then the last half hour suddenly changed gear, plunging straight into the long-awaited doomsday mission. Despite having weeks to prepare, the characters seemed poorly prepared, yet able to make a difference by relying on coincidence and luck.
While the length of the story is epic, the first part feels too long. The US DVD have truthfully announced it as "a live-action manga", which seems very honest. It feels like an adaption that refuses to condense the original work. Having said that, there are several confusing leaps in the narrative. These felt like the leaps made between TV episodes, or like an advert break has been edited out. Perhaps the project would have been better off as a mini-series, despite the occasionally impressive special effects, it doesn't really feel like a movie.
While the story intrigues, when you see what the various pay-offs are, there'll be no need ever watch it again. There are some great moments, but again nothing impressive enough to revisit.
I bought Chapter 1 on DVD, which seems to have different titles in different countries, and there's a two-disc set in the UK, evidence that they have high hopes for this series. I'm vaguely interested in seeing what happens next - but there's not much of a cliffhanger to lead into the forthcoming Chapter 2.
The first four volumes of the twenty-two original manga have been published in English and volume five is on the way.
Am I missing something? Anyone out there who's seen it, think the 20th Century Boys are awesome?
Trailer on YouTube for 20th Century boys: Chapter 1...
at 5:45 pm