Introduction to 20th Century Boys
Surprisingly, Naoki Urasawa’s apocalyptic manga, 20th Century Boys, follows a group of friends who reunite when a symbol from their past resurfaces as something far more sinister. 20th Century Boys, which Urasawa initially released in Japan from 1999 to 2009, switches back and forth between 1959 and 1997. The story revolves around Kenji Endo, a convenience store owner struggling to care for his abandoned baby niece. Following the tragic death of Donkey, a compassionate science teacher from their childhood, Kenji reconnects with his former companions. Before his death, Donkey sends a letter to Kenji, enclosing a drawing of a mysterious symbol and asking if Kenji remembers it.
Initially introducing the logo, Otcho, another acquaintance of Kenji’s, is now embraced by a clandestine cult governed by a captivating public figure called Friend. With peculiar speeches, the enigmatic figure fills the Budokan venue, comparing himself to Michael Collins, an astronaut from Apollo 11, and casually discussing world domination. It might link the occurrences to accounts of a severe viral epidemic that results in uncontrollable hemorrhaging among those affected.
By developing the characters, the flashbacks establish a connection between the past and the present. For example, Yukiji, the only female member of the group, contrasts the heroic young Kenji, who protected her from cruel bullies, with the present-day Kenji, who is defeated and inept as an adult.
Urasawa’s Artistic Style
Initially published in the weekly magazine Big Comic Spirits, Urasawa faced a challenging task with 20th Century Boys. He had to ensure that each chapter stood out among other concurrent works. However, he succeeded well thanks to his unique artistic style. The facial expressions of each character effectively communicate their emotions, sometimes surpassing the dialogue itself, while the carefully crafted environments enhance the realism. However, the intricate storyline crafted by Urasawa captivates readers and holds their interest.
Urasawa, a renowned mangaka, presents compelling works. When delving deep into his manga, the coherence becomes apparent. Urasawa adeptly delves into distinct territories within each genre he approaches, whether it is the gripping psychological terror of Monster or the enigmatic murder investigation in Pluto. Like the renowned Death Note, Urasawa derives inspiration from the notorious Aum Shinrikyo cult. Shoko Asahara, the group’s leader, died by execution in July for orchestrating the horrific sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Engaging with the manga creates an eerie sensation and holds a disconcerting essence, especially given the uneasy times we currently experience. For some readers, it may be a challenge to embrace. Nostalgia is a vital theme in the manga 20th Century Boys. However, it does not feel overly sentimental or pandering. What adds to this is that the manga evokes nostalgia for a past that still carries a sense of novelty. Specifically, the manga reminisces about Japan in the 1970s after the end of the occupation, during the reconstruction period when the country was on the verge of an economic bubble.
Continuity in the Manga’s Narrative
Additionally, flashbacks in later eras always present the events of the 1970s. The manga kicks off in 1999, commencing after the subsiding of the bubble economy. The societal status of the main characters in Japanese society before the events of Bloody New Year’s Eve does not necessarily signify wealth or contentment. Our protagonists do not transition from being “losers” in the past to becoming successful in the present. The contrast emphasizes that our protagonists face significant losses before achieving victory. Despite successfully averting the assassination of the Pope, they are incapable of halting the occurrence of Bloody New Year’s Eve. However, this does not prevent the emergence of Friend.
Furthermore, Friend’s main plan unfolds during the second time skip, not due to the ineptitude or incapability of our protagonists. Instead, their opponent consistently outmaneuvers them until making a crucial mistake. No matter when we observe them, someone perpetually places our heroes in an unfavorable position. It leads us to another aspect of the story. Because our protagonists are always outsiders, they possess a unique perspective to observe the mechanisms of oppression, which are not always prominently portrayed in manga.
We witness a 2014 Tokyo with a disenfranchised immigrant population, depicting a believable scenario where contemporary Tokyo could have a community facing discrimination. Within the narrative, the presence or mistreatment of this population is not where the fantastical element resides. Instead, it lies in Friend’s plan to scapegoat them for the assassination of the Pope. As a result, the slight shift in time beyond the manga’s original publication enables the exploration of Japan’s immigrant communities to go unnoticed. Anime and manga rarely address this topic.
Furthermore, Urasawa skillfully constructs the narrative structure of each era. Every era concocts its storyline by building upon the events of the preceding time jump, resulting in a distinct and interconnected narrative. The Book of Prophecy, written in 1970, contains seemingly implausible predictions about disasters that are now becoming a reality. Within the conspiracy, an enigmatic and politically influential figure referred to as the Friend emerges as the cult leader. Although the Friend’s identity remains unknown to everyone, some clues suggest Kenji should recognize him. Specifically, the symbol (created by Kenji and his friends during childhood) is identical to the one associated with the Friend. While conspiracies, charismatic cult leaders, and apocalyptic diseases are not uncommon in fiction, these elements hold strong resonance in 2021. Phenomena like the COVID-19 pandemic create many connections between the events in 20th Century Boys and real-world occurrences.
There is a certain poetic beauty in a series centered around The Book of Prophecy, which predicts the future. However, what strikes a deeper chord is the portrayal of human behavior. In one scene from 20th Century Boys, the character Inshu Manjoume reflects on how he came to support and know the Friend. Known as a peddler of fake medicines, Manjoume plays a role in creating the Friend as a messianic figure for his followers. They even stage a trick where they make the Friend appear to levitate using ropes and pulleys, creating a delicate illusion that could easily expose a slight movement. However, it is not just the audience who wholeheartedly believes it. Even one of the assistants responsible for physically lifting the Friend with ropes genuinely believes in his ability to fly. Within Manjoume’s contemplations, he realizes that individuals seek something to have faith in. The Friend’s following does not rely on emotional understanding, reason, or logical thinking about the world. It arises from a desire to shape the world according to preconceived beliefs and to feel a sense of participation in its transformation.
Unveiling the True Identity of the Friend
When delving into the complex and authoritarian nature of the Friend, they finally reveal his true identity. As suspected, the Friend was part of Kenji’s childhood circle, but he held deep contempt for Kenji. The Friend, a boy obsessed with children’s entertainment, manga, and anime, sought experiences, possessions, and knowledge to impress his friends. However, it was Kenji who captured the attention of the other children. The Friend became so obsessed with surpassing Kenji; after their intended visit to the 1970 World Expo in Osaka fell through, he opted to deceive others by creating counterfeit journal entries for school, giving the impression that he had participated in the event. His narrative is incredibly persuasive, to the extent that it generates the illusion of his personal experience at the expo. The wounds of failure remained open and painful for the Friend, so much so that even in the mythology created for his followers, it is unquestioned that the Friend did attend the Osaka Expo. Additional hints suggest that the mastermind orchestrating everything possesses the emotional maturity and mindset comparable to that of a child. It is essential to comprehend his childhood interests to gain genuine insight into his true identity, as they mirror the values embraced by Friend.
Before the revelation of Friend’s real identity, a character meticulously observes and accurately portrays his appearance solely from memory. When drawing Friend, the character comments that although the man is not a child, his face does not show emotional aging. The Friend carries deep psychological wounds from feeling overshadowed by Kenji. Contrary to expectations, he does not exploit motivation to attain a similar position. While remaining a despicable figure, we see a very accurate portrayal of how someone with reprehensible qualities can win the love and support of others.
Although the case involves biological weapons that Friend uses to achieve his goals, 20th Century Boys portrays the recurring terror of a deadly disease. Without going into too much detail, one example demonstrates why the manga becomes a frightening work in terms of human psychology. In one scene, a scientist character tries to convey to his colleague the magnitude of deaths caused by the virus on Bloody New Year’s Eve. Initially, the perpetrators intended to frighten and shake through the casualties.
Inspiration for Friend
The idea of Friend originated from Urasawa’s thoughts when attending his high school reunion. In an interview, Urasawa felt overwhelmed by the number of people present at the reunion. From one angle, he encountered familiar faces of good friends he remembered, while on the other hand, many people recognized him, but he had no recollection of them. This sense of familiar anonymity became the character’s inspiration for Friend, someone from Kenji’s past who is recognizable yet elusive in memory. Indeed, Friend represents the anonymous friend from Kenji’s youth. As revealed, it turned out that Friend was a classmate named Fukubei Hattori. Known for his quiet nature and maturity beyond his age, Fukubei was an outcast in their class. His only friend was Kiyoshi Sada, the boy who wore masks. In their youth, Fukubei secretly longed to join Kenji’s enthusiastic group of friends. Unaware of Fukubei’s desire, Kenji and his friends played in their secret base without paying attention to him. This thoughtless exclusion became the motivation for Fukubei to seek Kenji’s attention. In his obsession, Fukubei created a grand scenario in which he hoped Kenji would participate and become his friend. However, the character of Friend has deeper dimensions than just that of an alienated friend.
Within the identity of Friend, there are further layers to explore. He can act beyond the boundaries of human laws. In the case of Friend, he embodies a foreign alien persona; the depiction of Friend as an exceptionally talented individual marks the commencement of his enigmatic nature. Throughout the series, we see Friend achieving extraordinary feats. He can amass enough resources to establish a cult that would bring about the destruction of the world. In addition to levitating and bending spoons, he also can make accurate predictions. These supernatural abilities give Friend qualities that resemble an alien. In a prophetic sense, Friend transcends his status as an alien and assumes a god-like position. Within his cult, his miraculous powers and wisdom make him a figure that people obey, like a god among his followers. His resurrection after death strengthens his divine status. The transformation from a cult leader to a global icon positions Friend as a god-like figure. However, this changes when Kenji and his friends reveal Friend’s true intentions and identity, gradually unveiling the layers of his divine façade.
Stripping Away the Alien Identity
Urasawa’s portrayal of Friend’s human side reflects his response to the concept of supernatural beings. By stripping away Friend’s alien identity, Urasawa shows that even the most extraordinary individuals have a human aspect. He does this by giving Friend a concrete manifestation through human memories that shape his character. Ultimately, Urasawa reveals that Friend is not a god but simply a lonely person. The supernatural aspect is also evident in the identities of other characters. For example, Urasawa portrays Kenji as a cliché prince arriving on a white horse. Despite using the narrative trope of a prince, Urasawa depicts a young Kenji wearing an undershirt and a worn-out cap. It indicates that not only Friend possesses a mythical status, but even an ordinary elder can achieve a god-like status. No one is exempt from becoming a supernatural being, as everyone has the potential to be remarkable like others.
As something beyond human reach, Urasawa’s dismantling of fantastic elements is his response to the idea of the supernatural. However, he cynically and sarcastically addresses the old post-modern perspective. He emphasizes that fantastical creatures rely on inexpensive tricks to fabricate the semblance of the supernatural. As we gradually uncover the Friend’s mystical layers, we realize that he executes his psychic abilities as nothing more than illusions performed by a skilled magician. Urasawa tends to bring readers back to reality. Despite creating the most far-fetched future vision, he places great importance on grounding the characters. It is evident in the creation of Friend’s utopia and Kenji’s battle to save the world. During the summer of 1969, Kenji and his friends entertained the idea of world conquest.
Plotting the Scheme
The allure of reading the manga and having an extended summer vacation made the concept of world domination momentarily appealing. Although Kenji initially opposed the idea, they began to plot a scheme involving germ warfare and strategies to overcome it. From the adolescent plans, Kenji’s vision of an apocalypse materialized, giving birth to Friend’s utopia.
In 20th Century Boys, there is an interplay between dystopia and utopia. The narrative commences the dystopian aspects of Kenji’s ordinary society while concurrently constructing a new world in the form of Friend’s paradise. Likewise, heaven does not emerge haphazardly within the story, just as dystopia does not manifest out of nothingness. This unique dynamic is a notable aspect of the manga, where one concept gives birth to others, offering a contemporary lens on fantastical literature. It portrays the ideal and delves into the realities that resonate with us.
The dystopia’s initial hints surface through the imaginative games played by Kenji and his friends in their hidden refuge. In the early volumes, they imagine scenarios of germ warfare, robot invasions, giant meteor strikes, air pollution, and World War III. These are typical dystopian scenarios based on the consequences of industrialization, WWII, and modernization. It is natural for children to engage in such imaginative pursuits as they have yet to delve into profound contemplation of real-world events. Therefore, their understanding of dystopia is pure and not particularly mature. However, their perception changes as the Bloody New Year’s Eve event approaches. The event serves as the culmination of Kenji’s plans. On that day, a giant robot invades the earth, and Kenji uses a laser gun to destroy it. The robot unleashed a virus in 2000, triggering bloodshed in people’s bodies. Kenji assembles his friends, who possess knowledge of the Book of Prophecy, to thwart the colossal robot. This catastrophic event occurs on the last day of the 20th century.
Tokyo: the Final Battleground
Previous attacks have occurred in other cities, but Kenji sees Tokyo as the final battleground. The night unfolds with the bombing of the National Diet Building, followed by the spread of the virus throughout Tokyo and major cities worldwide. Despite their best efforts to stop the primary robot in Tokyo, a colossal explosion confronts Kenji and his friends, risking their lives. The extreme events push Friend and his cult to exert their power. Friend’s apparent heroism in attempting to stop the bomb puts him in a position to establish a new society. It marks the beginning of Friend’s utopia but also initiates Friend’s resistance, ultimately leading to the downfall of his empire.
Friend envisions dystopia in 20th Century Boys, incorporating elements of acceptance and political dissatisfaction, perceiving the destruction of society as a necessary event. The people dismiss Friend’s political party, leading to political dissatisfaction. The idea of a worldwide virus spread instills the fear that Friend needs to establish his utopia. By displaying heroic acts, such as appearing in front of the robot just moments before Kenji destroys it, he convinces people that he is a messianic leader who can lead them to safety. In times of difficulty, people naturally seek refuge in those who can ensure their security. The Friend also capitalizes on another crucial event, the new World Expo in Tokyo, which promises protection from the virus through the distribution of vaccines. After the courageous act of saving the Pope, he becomes the president of the world. Now, the world transformed into his utopia; people on a large scale embrace it. However, they must realize that Friend has meticulously orchestrated a grand conspiracy to attain fame, which he deems surpasses even his Budokan performance.
From Utopia to Terrorism
On the other hand, there is a shattered utopia in the lives of Kenji and his friends. Many lost their friends, family, and possessions during Bloody New Year’s Eve. Convinced of Friend’s wrongdoing, they live in underground hiding. The collapse of their world following Friend’s utopia is cause and effect. Naturally, one event influences another. In this case, Friend’s control over the world transforms Kenji and his friends into terrorists. Under perpetual surveillance and concealment, their lives are fraught with hardship. Once again, it becomes the eternal battle between evil and good. As Kenji’s battle cry goes, they strive to reclaim the symbol. In expressing this, Kenji’s struggle to restore his utopia becomes the principal theme of the series, symbolizing the longing for a return to normalcy.
Essentially, 20th Century Boys is a story of the struggle to shape a new century. It satirizes the meaning of global dominance and power struggles while reflecting on life on the margins. While Kenji and his friends may be perceived as heroes by readers, within a world still under the sway of Friend’s influence, they represent a threat to the ostensibly flawless utopia. Moreover, the definition of utopia becomes more personal, focusing on restoring virtuous truth and reestablishing human relationships. Unlike previous dystopian tales, this story conveys a social statement rather than a political one. The naturalistic yet functional art style in 20th Century Boys adds depth to the narrative. It is incredibly captivating, with a perfectly controlled plot. Unexpected revelations, shifts in direction, and surprising twists evoke audible reactions from readers. It serves as an extraordinary introduction to Urasawa’s work.
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