Danielle Leigh's Reading Diary -- 20th Century Boys vol 2 and 3

Michelle did a fabulous review of the first volume of Naoki Urasawa's intricately plotted mystery tale earlier this year.  While I enjoyed the first volume, I wasn't completely sold on the series just yet.  Having now read volumes 2 and 3, I am totally convinced protagonist and middle-aged disappointment Kenji Endo will save the whole damn world.  It just isn't exactly clear yet how he's going to do that.

There's so much layering of plot that is it hard to extract and examine any single plot thread individually.   However, there is one element that drives this work and that is the increasingly murderous activity of a mysterious cult, headed by the so-called "Friend," who lives in shadow and hides his face from his devoted followers.   The cult seems to have its creepy fingers in every level of society, which is terrifying considering that our "Friend" is bent on world destruction, which he carefully plots out by giving orders directly from "the book of Prophecy," aka Kenji's own childhood fantasies, meticulously recorded then, now a blueprint for death and destruction.  Kenji only dreamed up evil so that it could be defeated by a justice society of sorts.  Now a boring, middle-aged man who helps run his mother's convenience store and cares for his sister's baby, Kenji is entangled in a nightmare that he himself originally dreamed up.  How can Kenji, an absolute nobody, defeat a global network of extravagant evil that he himself designed?

In volumes 2 and 3, Kenji finds his resolve to stand up and fight, even if he has not a clue how exactly he can strike back against a force so malevolent it can release death in the form of a mysterious germ in San Francisco and London, as well as decimate an entire airport in Japan.  After all, one childhood friend has already lost his life thanks to Kenji's daydreams, he knows he must go it alone or else become responsible for even more deaths of innocent people.  More to the point, the so-called "Friend" has wormed his way into the fabric of Kenji's personal life in spectacularly disturbing way I refuse to spoil here.  Only know that this creep is forever connected to Kenji and that nothing -- save death -- can violate that connection.

While the intricate plotting of the title can leave one racing to find out what happens next, it is the character revelations that can really knock the breath out of you.  In volume 2, Urasawa knows exactly how to manipulate what we think we know about the characters by taking the time to offer a detailed, almost offensive, portrait of Kenji's self-absorbed past as a young man, made possible by his sister's bottomless devotion to him and her affectionate indulgence of his every desire.  We were introduced to Kenji's sister as a damning absence, but her eventual abdication of responsibility for herself and her child comes only after years of sacrificing almost everything -- perhaps even her sense of self -- for Kenji.  We not only see Kenji's broken dream of making it big with his band, but the personal cost his family paid so he could live out an adolescent passion for music.

It isn't really the mysterious cult that brings together this work but Kenji himself.  Kenji can't help but feel like a middle-aged failure as he inhabits the role of an emasculated convenience store-clerk, while he (literally) carries his niece on his back everyday, waiting on asshole customers, or cow-towing to the franchise cop.   Even his willingness to take on these degradations are evidence of Kenji's innate sense of justice.  Kanna may be thought of as a burden, but somehow she never seems like Kenji's burden.  When he stands up to the "Friend" in front of thousands of cultists who'd kill him on the spot if given the simplest order, or risks everything to save childhood friend Yukuji's life -- from bullies as a child, later from a possible terrorist attack by the cult -- we see a man who is actually quite admirable.  When Kenji stands up on his own and declares he's going to stop evil you can't help but believe that his childhood fantasies were in fact the prophecies the "Friend" claims they are.  However, we can never forget that the important part of Kenji's plan for the world is that good triumphs over evil no matter how great the odds against the good guys...or this good guy as the case may be.

Review Copy of volume 3 provided by Viz.

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