With volumes 4 and 5 of his epic 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa delivers not "a gripping drama about men who save the world from annihilation," as one character requests of two unsuccessful manga artists in volume 5, but a story that is much more complicated and brave than that.
20th Century Boys is about one's man struggle against a seemingly worldwide conspiracy to bring about the end of the world on December 31st, 1999. Kenji Endo's life is pretty much an exercise in unfulfilled expectations -- fast approaching 40 he's never managed to reach any of his potential. However, he may just be a born leader, a skill that comes in handy when he starts to uncover evidence of a mysterious plot to bring about terrifying incidents of death and devastation leading up to an apocalyptic finish at the dawn of the millennium.
Why is Kenji the hero of this tale? Because all the death and destruction happening in the last years of this fictional version of the 1990's was originally conceived as a childish fantasy he called "The Book of Prophecy." Yes, Kenji imagined a great evil that would in turn inspire great courage, with he and his circle of childhood friends stepping up as the world's saviors. Now that the events he once dreamed up are actually happening, his attempts at adult heroism become a much more complicated endeavor than he could have ever imagined. To be something akin to a "hero" in a modern world is a difficult path, particularly when people rely on you. Particularly when you are all they have, as is the case with Kenji's niece Kanna, who knows no other parent than him.
In volumes 4 and 5 Urasawa upends the path of his narrative in surprising, even shocking, ways. Volume 4 shifts away from Kenji to focus on his childhood friend Otcho, now a kind of Japanese exile living in Bangkok. Otcho is almost like an escapee from the Black Lagoon universe who has somehow slipped into the world of 20th Century Boys. An outcast from his former life as Japanese salaryman, Otcho has lost everything he once made the mistake of not treasuring enough, but still finds the will to keep living and helping others in the crime and drug-infested cess-pit that is Urasawa's Bangkok. Like all good heroes, Otcho returns to the fold to help Kenji but his back story and current life are a rich addition to the manga's cast of characters. Otcho and Kenji are nothing alike except for the deep reserves of heroism they somehow shared as children and both draw upon as adults. Doing nothing is not an option for these two and they inspire the somewhat less competent around them to join the effort to stop evil.
Volume 5 returns to the focus to Japan and charts the rapid-fire events that
lead up to what is supposed to be the climactic moment of December 31st, 1999 but instead ends up being one of the biggest mysteries of the story. Urasawa very deftly defies convention by not showing the reader what happens. Instead the second half the volume reveals the aftermath of the confrontation between Kenji's rag-tag group of resisters and the big evil afoot, but not the "why." It's a gutsy move that works and if I'm being exceptionally vague about what happens that is because I refuse to spoil the excitement and surprise of this volume.
These volumes are full of surprises but these twists and turns always seemed earned and that is a testament to Urasawa's skill as a story teller and an artist. His art style is always transparent and hooks us through a strong sense of flow and organization of panels, even when the development of the plot itself is shrouded in mystery. Together these elements of story and art are perfectly paired, giving the reader an anchor when the entire world -- his world -- has been turned upside down.
Review copies provided by Viz Media.