Previous Retro Reviews...
- MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO *** KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE *** PRINCESS MONONOKE
- HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE *** NAUSICAA *** CASTLE IN THE SKY *** PORCO ROSSO
- AKIRA Vol. 1 *** Vol. 2 *** Vol. 3 *** Vol. 4 *** Vol. 5 *** Vol. 6 *** TRIGUN Vol. 1
- LITTLE NORSE PRINCE VALIANT *** DRAGONBALL Vol. 1 *** GHOST IN THE SHELL
- MACROSS II *** LUPIN III: THE SECRET OF MAMO *** SPACE ADVENTURE COBRA
- BAKUMAN Vol. 1 *** MONSTER Vol. 1 *** DEAD LEAVES
What a hard story to categorize.
20th CENTURY BOYS is the sort of sublime, genre-bending storytelling that you’d normally only find on the modern lit shelf at the book store. It’s cerebral science fiction at points, it’s goofy coming-of-age comedy at others - - and at all times, it has a very menacing undercurrent of horror. Indeed, despite what the cover seems to advertise, “horror” is really the best label for what lies on the pages inside.
Of course, this isn’t the type of horror that gets written up in Fangoria or Bloody Disgusting; not the kind that calls up the usual handful of classic monsters and gothic locales. Despite the numerous stylistic flourishes it shares with Urasawa’s other recent hit, it doesn’t even look quite like a follow-up to MONSTER’s style of horror - - not even a spiritually one. Rather, as the title evokes, 20th CENTURY BOYS feels like some transcendent step ahead for the genre; one that lets the boogeyman free to drop his usual get-up and creep anywhere, and everywhere, beyond those familiar dark cellars and creepy attics.
Describing the story is maybe even a little harder than categorizing it. That’s not because it’s tough to summarize what happens, per se - - it's because the hook of this manga is to experience that plot diced up into a hypnotizing, non-linear mosaic.
Basically, a put-upon convenience store manager, Kenji Endo, starts noticing a number of startling coincidences which connect the present to a silly time-capsule he and his friends put together in the late 60's. Inside a little thatched clubhouse in an unused land plot, these boys fantasized about becoming heroic, alien-and-robot-fighting ninjas who’d save the world at the end of the century. They even made a sigil for their team - - an odd approximation of the Masons’ All-Seeing Eye.
When that sigil starts reappearing in concert with the deaths and disappearances of random people in Kenji’s life, he does a little snooping and discovers that, somehow, there’s a cult that’s apparently been fashioned off of the boys’ club. Stranger still, the crude drawings and half-sketched ideas that the boys placed in their time capsule now seem to be turning into monstrous realities. And, most terrifyingly, the threat the boys imagined themselves fighting against one day may actually be coming to destroy the world with the impending turn of the millennium.
A comparison can be drawn here to some of Stephen King’s work. The man has his themes he likes to revisit, for sure; and stories about tightknit groups of young boys facing reappearing horrors as grown-ups (usually after a friend’s funeral reunites them) do come up a lot. Still, this is distinctly Urasawa.
As in MONSTER, there’s a malevolent mastermind whose face is mysteriously cloaked in shadow. Hallways are frequently rendered at canted angles and with foreshortened speed lines that convey an exhilarating sense of forward motion. The linework dances from often grotesquely-caricatured figures to meticulously-detailed scenery with a smoothness that it’s quite nearly imperceptible. Even as it rarely ever doles out the sort of flashy eye-candy that makes for cool dorm-room prints and desktop wallpapers, this is, at all times, a phenomenal book to flip through and look at.
While we’re likening this to “Fiction” with a capital F, it feels even less appropriate to evaluate it in piecemeal the way such serialization really forces you to. It’s sort of akin to writing a novel up based on just its first two chapters.
Yes, I come down hard on other series that don’t lead out on their best foot. I won't suffer a series that presumes your willingness to wade through some less-than-stellar early installments in order to “get to the good stuff.”
The difference here is that there’s a very firm sense of being on the tip of something profound. Even as only a frustratingly scant number of details regarding Kenji’s horrific reunion are offered, those details are still enthralling. They still compel you to check out what’s coming next, even as they still feel so evanescent.
Perhaps that's a kinder way of saying that the series is paced a little leisurely. Talking 20th CENTURY BOYS up like this does feel a little akin to groping about blindly in the mist (and having a tinge of fear about the boogeyman most likely lurking in that mist.) I know so little about what's going on - - I'm only getting to see such a small section of the mosaic - - but for once, that's actually welcome. Something indescribable's lurking here, and it's wonderfully terrifying.