Are you my Friend?
The three-film live-action adaptation of Urasawa Naoki’s (Yawara!, Monster) “20th Century Boys” (Japanese title: “Honkaku Kagaku Boken Manga: Nijuseki Shonen” or “An Actual, Scientific Adventure Comic: 20th Century Boys”) is one of the most expensive in Japanese film history, with an overall budget of 6 billion yen and a cast of 300 people. Sometimes referred to as the Watchmen of Japanese comics, obvious care and attention was taken when adapting the series to the big screen.
This first film in the series, called “Beginning of the End” (a direct translation of the Japanese “Owari no Hajimari”) covers volumes 1-5 of the original comic series, and shows the life of a group of misfit boys (and one girl!) who had a secret club in elementary school where they played together. The children also worked on a science fiction adventure story, dubbed the “Book of Prophecy,” that foretold the destruction of the world by a super villain and the emergence of the club members as a super hero team that would unite to defeat the evil. Now, grown up and middle aged, the members of the club run into each other at a class reunion, and ask each other questions about a mysterious new religious cult that has been gaining in popularity, lead by a mysterious figure known only as “Friend.” The symbol of the cult, the eyeball inside a pointing hand, is the exact same symbol that the group used for their childhood secret club, and it seems like somehow the events written in the “Book of Prophecy” are coming true.
Like the comic book, “20the Century Boys: Beginning of the End” moves backwards and forwards in time when telling the story, starting with Endo Kenji (Karasawa Toshiaki, Casshern) as a failed rockstar who now works at a convenience store with his mother and cares for his sister’s infant child Kanna. When new members of the group appear, the story flips back to the childhood club, introducing each in tern and slowly leaking clues as to the identity of “Friend” and the events of the “Book of Prophecy.” The club members know that the “Book of Prophecy” ends with a stereotypical Giant Robot attack on Tokyo, and they all wonder just how much ability does “Friend” have to realize the story they wrote as kids.
I think calling “20th Century Boys” the “Watchmen” of Japanese comics is fitting in that neither movie lived up to the promise of the original material, but were good in their own right. If I had never read “Watchmen,” I probably would have loved the flick and those who haven’t read “20th Century Boys” stand a greater chance of loving it. Director Tsutsumi Yukihiko (Happily Ever After) didn’t take too many chances straying from the source material, and as we have seen many times when directors try to simply re-create a beloved comic on film it can lack the energy and pacing demanded by a film. The flash-back/flash-forward sequences work well to create tension in the storyline, but sometimes it also just muddles everything into confusion.
Actor Toyokawa Etsushi (Hula Girls), playing club member “Otcho, steals most of his scenes playing the lone wolf and dangerous member of the group who runs a business rescuing captive Japanese business men who are being blackmailed for their “exploits” in poorer Asian countries. Toyokawa is a great tough guy, and brings some realism to the fight scenes. Takako Tokiwa (Brave Story) playing the only female member of the club Yukiji is a little bit wasted as comic relief, and the romantic tension between her and Kenji never really feels authentic.
The whole “Cast of 300” kind of worked against “20th Century Boys,” as there are too many famous faces popping in for cameos and then disappearing. If you are not really familiar with Japanese actors this won’t be a problem, but having Takenaka Naoto (Ping Pong) pop up for a few seconds to flash his trademark grin just comes off as distracting and takes me out of the storyline. (Seriously, I love the guy but it seems like it is almost illegal to make a Japanese film without giving Takenaka Naoto at least a bit part anymore…)
The big budget, however, was well-spent. Staying true to Urasawa’s claim of an “Actual, Scientific Adventure Comic” the way they deal with the Giant Robot attack is fantastic. It is not all science, however, such as when Friend appears at the end astride Okamoto Taro’s “Tower of the Sun” from the Expo Commemoration Park in Osaka. I have to admit, this scene gave me an extra thrill as I lived in Osaka for many years and have stood before that bizarre sculpture many, many times (I even have a miniature version that I bought sitting on a shelf at home). I would always comment how the tower looked like it would come to life and do battle with Godzilla, so it was very cool to see that almost happen on film.
There has been some confusion as to what exactly happens at the end, and you have to remember that this is a three-volume series so don’t expect to get a complete story here, but all I can say is hold on and wait for the next film. Not that everything will be explained totally, but it does make more sense overall.
While I think the “20th Century Boys” comic is superior, overall I didn’t enjoy this movie adaptation as much as I enjoyed both Death Note and “Death Note II: The Last Name.” Both of those movies knew when to deviate from the comic to tell a story that worked well for film, and unfortunately that didn’t happen as much with “20th Century Boys.” While still an excellent movie, “20th Century Boys” just ever so slightly misses the mark.