Yesterday, I finished Urasawa Naoki’s 20th Century Boys. In related news, I have a new favorite manga series.
[[image:cg_kenjibroom.jpg:Move like a cat, talk like a rat.:center:0]]
20th Century Boys is a near-future science fiction mystery, and the solutions to its puzzles lie in the gaps between the idealism of childhood and the disappointment of growing up. Without giving too much away, the story’s main characters are literally assaulted by the ghosts of their imagination for reasons that slowly unravel as the plot progresses. Structurally, the story spans multiple generations, spiralling between eras; from the very first volume until the very end, 20th Century Boys jumps back and forth between children imagining epic battles with giant robots and adults facing the dangerous consequences of their own childhood fantasies come to life. As the main characters struggle to understand and confront this bizarre situation, fragmentary and intentionally distorted memories are gradually retold and revised from multiple perspectives as the truth gradually comes to light.
This may sound hokey, and that’s because it honestly is. However, its admittedly silly premise creates a brilliant framework for Urasawa to play with manga conventions while also telling a story about growing up. The shounen manga tropes that intrude on adult reality do not transition seamlessly, often appearing incomplete and ridiculous, like juvenile ideas forcibly realized despite their scientific impracticality. At one point, there is a hilarious board meeting of villains who discuss how to build the perfect giant robot. Each wants to incorporate elements of their favorite childhood giant robot series while the scientist forced to design it frustratedly attempts to explain the impossibility of their requests. 20th Century Boys has elements of both science fiction and the fantastical, but it approaches these elements from the perspective of adults who are aware of just how ridiculous their situation is, even as they face the potential end of life on earth.
In 20th Century Boys, children who dream of fighting for justice grow up to live ordinary lives. When the time to confront evil finally comes, even that evil itself fails to meet their expectations, seeming just as emptily childish as their old heroic fantasies. And as they reexamine the truth of their childhood to discover the cause of the dangerous situation they are now in, that, too, loses its luster. At its core, 20th Century Boys is a story about nostalgia and childhood dreams falling apart in the face of reality that also just happens to include mecha and psychic powers.
Unfortunately, Viz’s English translation of this is currently on hold until publication of Urasawa’s Monster is completed, but it will definitely be worth the wait.