Monday, 28 September 2015

Film Review - '20th Century Boys, Part 1 - The Beginning of the End'

The process of adapting a story from one medium to another can be a tricky one - that's something we should all be familiar with, by now. Just because a story works in one medium doesn't guarantee that it will work in another. Just look at the strained relationship between video games and movies, for example. There is a long-running tradition of adaptations in both directions, and the result is almost always terrible - or, at best, kind of average. Or, more appropriately for this review, let's consider the various adaptations of comic books to movie. There have been plenty - and, with increasing regularity, they're actually tending to turn out quite well. But, it took film-makers quite a while to get the balance right - to learn which comics would actually work on screen, and how best to translate them. And, most importantly, what to leave out in the process of translation.

In both the case of video games and comic books (and, novels as well, for that matter), the real issue is one of length. Condensing a comic long-running series, or a particularly thick novel (or, in the case of some of the more notorious video game adaptations of the past, padding out a story that can be summed up in a single paragraph into a full-length feature), requires a fair amount of work. And, it is something that film-makers have failed at many times. So, when it comes to a live-action adaptation of a well-regarded, though complex and very strange, long-running Japanese comic book series (or, manga, to the fans) it would be fair to wonder exactly how they intend to approach it. 20th Century Boys is the series in question, here - and, don't worry too much if you've never heard of it. Honestly, I hadn't either. It is, however, commonly considered to be one of the greatest works of respected manga artist (or, mangaka... again, for the fans), Naoki Urasawa. It is a complex tale that spans decades - from 1960s until well into the 21st century. And, perhaps knowing that they can never hope to condense it into a single movie, it was planned from the ground up as a trilogy.

Kenji Endou is an ordinary man, who lives an ordinary life. He once had aspirations of rock-stardom, but was forced to abandon his dreams when the death of his father required him to take over the management of the small convenience store owned by his family. He has also found himself cast in the role as the primary care-giver for his young niece, Kanna, following the disappearance of his older sister.

However, Kenji's life begins to get more complicated when he learns of the recent death of one of his childhood friends, nicknamed Donkey, and of the existence of a strange cult lead by a mysterious masked figure known only as Friend - and, of the very real possibility that the two may be somehow connected. As it turns out, the symbol used by this cult is identical to one created by Kenji and his friends when they were children to represent their own personal club - which leads some to suspect that one of their own former circle may actually be Friend. But, if that weren't strange enough, a science-fiction story that the group wrote together as children, which they call their 'Book of Prophecies', now seems to be coming true. In their story, an evil organisation works to take over the world by launching a series of attacks on key targets around the world, only to be stopped by a group of heroes. In the modern world, a series of attacks identical to those in their story are taking place, just as Friend's cult seems to slowly gain power and influence.

And, to top it all off, Friend and his followers seem to have a particular interest in getting their hands on Kanna - who they seem to believe is somehow special.

So, now, Kenji and his reunited friends find themselves cast as the unlikely heroes of a story that they wrote as children. And, time is running out, since the last page of their story seems to indicate an all-out attack on the city of Tokyo itself on the last day of the 20th century - an attack which (this being Japan. And, this being a story first written by children) seems to involve a giant robot.

Such a complicated and, lets be honest, strange story could have easily fallen apart, even with the extra time allowed by a trilogy of movies. Thankfully, though, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi does an impressive job of keeping things moving, and of juggling the wide variety of plot-threads and characters. There are really three separate threads, here. The first is the fairly mundane tale of a group of childhood friends spending their days doing what children all over the world do - just passing the time and enjoying themselves. In the second, we have the increasingly strange, and increasingly dark, tale of Kenji's efforts to stop Friend. And, in the third, we have a couple of brief glimpses forward in time to the year 2015, which seems to suggest that there is a bleak future ahead for our heroes. These three main threads are explored in parallel to each other - with many frequent jumps back and forth whenever necessary. These three threads are also woven together well enough that the changes from one to the other always feel natural, and the viewer is never left feeling lost. It is also to the film's credit that the gradual change in tone from something of a light-hearted comedy into something significantly stranger and darker is also well-done. By the end, you should hopefully be invested enough in what you are watching that the sight of Friend, and his variety of strange masks, will seem genuinely unnerving rather than silly - and, that the final confrontation will be a legitimately dramatic moment, rather than simply absurd.

Naturally, with this being the first movie of a trilogy, you would have to go in knowing not to expect every plot-point to be resolved. And, 20th Century Boys certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard. So, when the movie ends on a somewhat bleak and unsatisfying note (which it does), and when there are still many questions left unanswered (which there are), it is only fair to hope that the audience's reaction would be one of eager anticipation, rather than frustration (which it was... at least for me).

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