Saturday, February 13, 2010

Commentary on Twentieth Century Boys

When I first came to Japan in 1992, one of the manga titles that caught my eye was Naoki Urasawa's Yawara. I loved the art style, the sense of movement in the middle of the judo throws, and the characters themselves. After it ended, I tried looking for more titles from him, and came across "Dancing Policeman", which was a collection of unrelated short stories. The manga here was nothing like Yawara, and I felt rather disappointed by it. Then Happy came out, about a young girl trying to compete in tennis tournaments to pay off the debts left her by her parents, and the constant mountain of misfortunes heaped on her just depressed me and I quit reading in mid-series. This was followed by Monster, which has a doctor being punished for doing a good deed; Pluto, which initially looked like a Tezuka rip-off; and then Twentieth Century Boys. I kind of gave up on Naoki, thinking that he'd drifted too far away from what had brought me to him in the first place.

But then I got more interested in Tezuka's works, and I went back to read Pluto to find out what he was trying to say based on an earlier Astro Boy short story that I'd also read, and I realized that Naoki had created something interesting. The original Tezuka story was just a throw-away about a villain that makes a giant robot to terrorize the world and Astro Boy demanding to have a power upgrade to face off against it. In that story, Tezuka was just saying that having more power isn't necessarily the best solution. Naoki took this story and built up an all-new world where seven super robots which had supposedly saved robot-kind from a despot are now targeted by the same despot with a super robot designed by Astro Boy's own creator. There's now a more humanistic element to the story, where we're asked whether intelligent robots can also have feelings, and whether they should be allowed to have rights like humans do.

(From OneManga, for review purposes only.)

With my attitude towards Urasawa turning more optimistic, I decided to go through One Manga to read Twentieth Century Boys from the beginning. Previously, I'd only been able to get my hands on a chapter every few weeks, and there'd be holes in the middle. I couldn't really understand the dialog that well, so I never really knew what the relationships were between the characters, and the long periods of time between chapters didn't help. When I finally sat down with the English fan scanilations, I was able to blow through all 265 chapters (give or take) in 2 days. Amazing what a difference actually being able to understand the dialog makes...

I'm probably coming to the game late here, and most of you have undoubtedly finished reading TCB 4 years ago when the series ended. If so, I apologize. In any event, Naoki does a great job creating a mystery with twists and turns that keep you guessing until the very end. On the surface, this is a simple adventure story pitting a group of friends against an evil religious cult bent on taking over the world. Since, TCB started shortly after the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, the parallels are pretty easy to see. Not a lot to the story, and the long stretches of talking get in the way of the action scenes.

One layer down, it's a psychological tale investigating what happens when friends turn on each other in the name of ideology. A little more interesting, but kind of naive. The characters' motivations are fairly superficial, and what drives them tends to be simple internal consistency - "I was doing this action before, so I'll do it again now". Most of the characters are selfish; cheating on their spouses, abandoning their dreams to overcome short-term problems, or turning their backs on their family to focus on work. They're not overly likable.

But, even farther down, things become more interesting. Here, we have a true mystery. What happens when a group of children becomes so jealous of another group, that they decide to act out on their threats to show up the others? When the cry of "look at me!" goes to extremes. This brings out a more complex mystery, where we keep getting asked "who else has been overlooked up until now?" Naoki makes the plot twists a lot more complicated because while we're shown clues, we don't really know who the face is behind the mask until he's ready, and there's always one more face waiting in the shadows.

I won't give anything away here, because I want you to read the books for yourself (buy the commercial English versions). What I do want to do is talk about two underlying threads in the storyline. First is the music side. Naoki's protagonist, Kenji, grows up thinking that music can save the world. We're constantly given the names of bands or songs popular at the end of the 60's, beginning of the 70's, such as T. Rex, Credence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, etc. One of the turning points is a year 2015 version of Woodstock. "Peace and Love" becomes a mantra that everyone turns their backs on because it's no longer convenient. Hate and fear takes its place, along with everything that entails (friends betraying each other, loss of personal rights, and increased violence against targeted groups). The point though, is that a lot of the music mentioned in TCB is good stuff. It's worth going back and rediscovering it, just to be exposed to the energy it contains.

The second thread is that of manga. Naoki makes a number of throwaway references to titles and artists famous at the time. Here, we get to play trivia games on the internet. Each new reference in TCB will lead to new discoveries on our part if we do google searches on them. Which is exactly what I'm finding for myself as I dig more into the history of manga, and visit more museum exhibits on different artists. Naoki has parodies of Fujio Fujiko, Fujio Akatsuka and Hiro Terada as supporting characters. Tezuka himself shows up as "Mr Takarazuka" (named after the Takarazuka theater troupe that he liked). These characters actually live in an apartment building called Tokiwa Manor, which is where the Tokiwa Heroes lived in the early 1950's. And of course we get references to Tetsujin 28-go and Gundam, and Shonen Sunday and COM magazines, among others. What fascinates me about all this is that I never would have appreciated any of these references 6 months ago. It's only now that I can read TCB and say "oh, that's who that is".

I'd written a previous blog entry on Taro Okamoto, where I'd said that sometimes you have to wait until you're ready to understand something before you can like it. That's certainly true of TCB. It becomes more funny when you realize that a major feature in TCB is that part of the story takes place at the 1970 Osaka World Expo grounds, where a specific statue was built called "Tower of the Sun". And that the artist for "Tower of the Sun" was Taro Okamoto.

Twentieth Century Boys is a good story in its own right, and the artwork is excellent. The pacing is good - I never got bored with it, and while I could guess at some of the plot twists, I could never really be sure if I was right until Naoki came right out and gave away the answer. But, it's the trivia embedded in the underlying storylines that I like the most. If you enjoy manga or music history, I highly recommend that you read TCB and then see what you can did up on the names through google (hint: a lot of the manga history has already been mentioned in ThreeSteps). And if you read TCB before, go back and read it again. It'd be worth your time.


David said...

I too read the entire series in two days (over a weekend). I have been enjoying the slower re-read I am forced to perform as I buy the US localizations (which are excellent).

What I really want to say, though, is that while you don't go too much into depth (largely to avoid spoilers) this blog post is probably the BEST I've seen at laying out, roughly, the interesting and important themes of 20th Century Boys. You hit exactly on the central study of narcissism ("look at me!") and its counterpoint: that which is hidden even deeper in the baroque folds of the story(as you describe it, what has been overlooked).

People often complain about the virtual reality portions as being kind of contrived and unbelievable. They are also, though, probably the most conceptual portions of the manga. I think there, as in Monster, Urasawa is willing to let good storytelling drop in order to shift to an analytic as opposed to narrative mode. In the case of Monster, it was Tenma's and Johan's 'idealization.' Tenma was more guilty of it, being almost inhumanly saintly. Johan, of course, has abilities beyond verisimilitude (though he does not lack psychological nuance as much as Tenma). But those abilities are important in order to make him the vehicle for the study of evil and 'monsters.'

Xavier Guilbert said...

While I think you are right on regarding the nostalgia themes explored in 20th Century Boys, I cannot help but feel that Urasawa starts watering things down in the middle and gets lost in his own plot.

The first third (first 7 or so volumes) is masterfully structured, with the back-and-forth between the various timelines and time periods. But adding too many layers, and having the mystery of Tomodachi's identity linger on like a bad villain's plot ends up being very cheap. As if Urasawa hadn't realized that the core of his story wasn't the mystery, but what it means to grow up and how your childhood hopes get scattered along the way.

In this sense, the virtual reality portions are a cheap trick, because they interfere with the memory sequences -- so much that Urasawa himself gets confused about what should be in those reconstructions, and what is actually true, and ends up using the virtual reality to fill up plot holes that he couldn't deal with otherwise.

In my opinion, he should have stopped the series around volume 16 or 17, leaving some questions unanswered, rather than dragging it for a couple more, and coming to a sappy ending.

TSOTE said...

Urasawa's endings are always sappy. That was one of the biggest disappointments to me for Monster. Things just wrapped up too neatly at the end, after everything else that had happened up to that point.

I had some problems with the virtual reality sequences largely because the characters kept talking to themselves as if they couldn't tell that they're within a video game. There should have been one of the adults that recognized that talking to their game version wouldn't have any impact on the real world at all. But, none of them understood why the "kids" kept getting confused over their actions.

Personally, though, I found the virtual reality portion interesting because it showed the differences between how various people remember things. The VR apparently was made up from two people's sets of memories. If I understand the one scene correctly, the imitation Tomodachi was having his memories recorded for the game in one of the later chapters. And, there was a hint that the imitation had been the first Tomodachi, while the real one had surfaced later, with the imitation resurfacing after the real one is killed. (Man, that's confusing). If this is true, then the VR world could have been made up of two conflicting sets of memories. So, rather than plot holes, there may have been some rationale behind Urasawa's story choices. I really would have liked to see what Tomodachi (Disney) World looked like, rather than just revisiting Tomodachi (Disney) Land over again.

There was a TV program on Takehiko Inoue a couple months ago, featuring "Vagabond" now that it's reaching its end. The program didn't really show Inoue's assistants that much, but his studio is pretty big and it does have a planning room for discussing the story so everyone knows what's expected of them at each stage. If Urasawa has the same studio setup, then it's possible that he and his assistants discussed the story's twists and turns all along the way. It'd be nice to think that they'd recognize a plot hole before it could make its way to paper. But I may be wrong on that...

David said...

Two things regarding the lingering mystery of Friend's identity. First: Urasawa actually gives that up (to a certain extent) incredibly early for a series like 20th Century Boys. We do get answers not long after the first third or so.

Secondly, I saw/read (can't recall, if I find the link I'll post it) an interview in which Urasawa stated that he never saw Friend's identity as being that central to 20th Century Boys.

Finally, I disagree totally about cutting it off early. Plenty still remains unanswered, as is the case on Monster, and I simply don't understand how either ending could be considered sappy. Especially Monster. The final chapter is unsettling and challenging (and I'm not even talking about the final page).

TSOTE said...

David, I wouldn't say that the ending of TCB is all that sappy, although there is a "happily ever after" feeling to all of it. But, with Monster, after everything that happened to the primary characters throughout the series, having them all making nice with each other seemed too simple an outcome. Yes, the last few pages reintroduce some tension, but by that point I was ready to go on to the next story.

Regardless, I think this is the mark of a good series, and especially of manga as a whole, that different people can read it and come to vastly different conclusions. I give Urawasa props for that, and I do want to see where he goes with Billy Bat.