Children are excellent at creating mythologies. And some of the mythologies that you make with your friends can affect you for the rest of your lives.
That is one of the first thoughts I probably had when I began reading Urasawa Naoki’s manga series 20th Century Boys. Much in the way that its protagonists struggle to remember all the details of their childhood, I find I’m having difficulty recalling how I even found this series.
I found some of the Viz Media-translated books at the Toronto Public Library and read Books One through Fifteen from 2011 to early 2012. They didn’t have all of them yet and I suspect that some of the books themselves weren’t even translated for purchase during that period. I admit: I was attracted to the simple prototypical white, grey and black elegance and faded colouring of the covers and, of course, the premise on the backs of the books themselves.
Yes, it’s not so much that I judge a comic book by its cover, but more specifically its back cover. And I was also intrigued by context.
It didn’t hurt that 20th Century Boys title is was actually taken from the catchy song 20th Century Boy by a music group called T. Rex, that the twentieth century itself covers so much ground with regards to modern history, and footnotes. Yes, a manga series that has footnotes about Japanese culture and–specifically–manga, anime, television, and geek (or otaku) culture. There’s this special magic in starting off a story of any kind with literary and cultural references: hence the reason why I tend to start some of my narratives with epigraphs, or quotes from other works real or imagined that appeal to me.
You can blame Frank Herbert’s Dune for that.
I’m also really hesitant in committing to most series. I admit it. There is this vulnerability in opening yourself up to a story that is bad, becomes bad, or is so good that you get attached to the characters and you just wince at what is about to come: especially when it hit something home for you much in the way of a children’s baseball game.
But as I was saying, it was the story premise that got me. In 1969, the time of the first Moon landing and Uri Geller’s spoon-bending psychic phenomenon, a group of children create a story where they are a society of heroes rising up against a league of evil that has destroyed the world. They create together a Book of Prophecy that outlines all the events that will lead to their battle. This is their symbol: that of friendship.
Eventually, when they lose the field with their “secret base” they leave a time-capsule with the book and then, as childhood friendships are want to do, they move and drift apart. However, just as the symbol above represents an image in some manga that tells the reader to turn the page (with an eye drawn over it), this story isn’t over yet.
Years later Endo Kenji, one of the group and the creator of the Book of Prophecy, is an adult and with the suicide of one of his old friends notices the rise of a cult led by a mysterious figure named “Friend:” a man that uses and wears their childhood symbol as a mask. Kenji and his other friends begin to reunite and realize that someone is reenacting the scenarios of their childhood into a very grim adult reality.
What I really liked about this series was how it took the tropes of the superhero, the supervillain, and even Japanese mecha and juxtaposes them over an adult and human world. Even as the protagonists themselves have to suspend their own disbelief and, indeed, try to remember the distant memories of their childhood in order to find out who “Friend” is and to stop him, “Friend” himself subverts the archetypal story and creates something truly horrific. It’s almost as though his actions and their consequences on the world around him not only mock the characters, the genre of adventure hero manga but our own expectations as well.
[Welcome to the *Real* Friend Zone]
From my perspective, reading 20th Century Boys is like Alan Moore having been born into an alternate universe where he came from Japan and was influenced by Tezuka Osamu, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, anime and manga for most of his formative years and became the person that exists in our world: Urasawa Naoki. However, don’t let my bad analogy deceive you. This is not a comics Revisionist series. While Urasawa did make a grittier and darker version of Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy world of robots through his series Pluto, 20th Century Boys is its own world and story that utilizes, parodies, subverts and pays homage to the otaku and twentieth century symbolism of his, and so many others’, childhood and culture.
In fact, now that I think about 20th Century Boys reminds me of the realistic and gritty style of gekiga. I wrote a sloppy Blog post about this a while back with a focus on a lack of superheroes in Japan, but this book is making me reconsider some of my original points. It actually does remind me of Julian Darius’ explanation about Reconstructionism.
As children, the main characters are very iconic and essentialized while they are surrounded by a realistic background. In fact, even when they grow older they still maintain traces of that youth–of that neoteny–only matured and “grown up.” And isn’t Reconstruction what creating stories is ultimately about: especially when you consider that children form stories in much the same way that put Lego pieces together. You have your basic building blocks that exist in reality and then you rearrange them to create some other kind of meaning. That’s what Kenji’s Group does. And then imagine the story continuing to build itself after them. Later in the series, a character even flat-out states “But kids games never finish.”
And sometimes reading 20th Century Boys is like watching a child’s game continue imperfectly. It’s true. Between the introduction of ESP into the story which seems to serve little significance to the characters but to hearken back to the spirit of the late twentieth century, people miraculously being able to walk away from explosions that should have killed them, the use of some stock and stereotypical characters, and a lack of visual closure with regards to the narrative build-up of some emotional relationships (which I hear is typical of Urasawa in his other works as well) the story is not exactly perfect.
However, consider this: the plot of 20th Century Boys is that “Friend” made a children’s playground out of the destruction of the world: turning a childhood dream into a dystopian nightmare used against its dreamers and all humankind. It was like Urasawa combined Field of Dreams with The Prisoner and 1984. It is terrifying and fucking beautiful in that the only way the protagonists can beat him is if they play the game that they all made together.
It makes me wonder what would have happened if some of the roleplaying games of my childhood and long-term friendships were ever applied to the real world. A long time ago, some of my friends, influenced by the Dune II computer game, created a whole world of interactions that I had a part in creating to this very day.
I won’t lie: becoming the secret Emperor of the world does intrigue me from time to time. But what 20th Century Boys illustrates is how even a childhood dream can cost the lives of billions. Even so, what a beautiful story that makes in fiction.
I would definitely recommend this series. It was only recently that I finished reading them online. Unfortunately the ones I read were not Viz English translations: which was one of the reasons why I hesitated in looking elsewhere for so long. No translation, from Japanese to English or any language for that matter is the same. So if you can find those Viz English editions, please read them. If not, consider the following:
The Friend cult sometimes has to purge some of its members. While the literal translation of their euphemism is generally translated as “banish,” the Viz version uses the word “reject.”
So tell me, my … friends, doesn’t the phrase, “Reject him,” sound so much more satisfying? And doesn’t it remind you of childhood: where acceptance and rejection can make all the difference in how your perceive your identity if not your very life? Keep that in mind when you read 20th Century Boys and you wonder who the heroes are, who the villain is, what their motivations are, and how some parts of childhood affect you forever. There is never full closure.
The games of children never end.