Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Film Review - '20th Century Boys, Part 2 - The Last Hope'

The second film in the 20th Century Boys trilogy, based on the popular manga series by Naoki Urasawa, shifts its focus fully to the year 2015, leaving the question of what actually happened immediately following the cliff-hanger style climax of the first unanswered as we are, instead, showing the long-term consequences of an attack launched by a mysterious cult on the first day of the 21st century.

Things didn't end so well for our band of aspiring heroes at the end of the previous film. Despite their best efforts, Friend and his mysterious cult were able to launch a successful attack on the city of Tokyo.Also, thanks to Friend's planning, the blame for the attack has been laid at the feet of Kenji and his companions - leaving Friend as a hero and saviour in the minds of the people. Because that was, as it happens, Friend's plan all along. The attacks were never simply random and meaningless destruction - but, rather, a deliberate attempt to create the right mixture of fear and instability that would allow him to step forward as a saviour. By placing himself at the centre of it all, Kenji had inadvertently played right into Friend's hands, and Friend was able to place the blame for his own attacks on Kenji. As far as the world is concerned, Friend is the hero and Kenji is a terrorist - but, of course, anyone who was actually there knows better.

With the apparent death of Kenji at the climax of the first film, it would seem that the role of 'central protagonist' would need to be filled. Thankfully, though, the shift forward in time means that Kanna, Kenji's young niece from the previous film, is now old enough to fill the empty space. As the new protagonist of the series, Kanna quickly proves herself to be a much more proactive and forceful personality than her uncle was. It makes sense, though - Kenji was, after all, really just an ordinary man living an ordinary life until he found himself pulled into an extraordinary situation. Kanna, on the other hand, is the niece of the man who tried to save the world, and who grew up in a world where he and his companions ultimately failed, and where they had been made out as criminals by Friend's new government.

Kanna, who believes that her uncle may still be alive, is eager to continue the fight against Friend in any way that she can, despite having no clear idea of how to do so. And Otcho, Kenji's closest friend and the only member of the original group who was actually any good in a fight, has spent the past years locked away and plotting his escape. All of the events outlined in the 'Book of Prophecies', first written by Kenji and his friends when they were children, have come true thanks to Friend's efforts. But, now, it seems that there is a second 'Book of Prophecies' which continues the story beyond Friend's victory at the beginning of the 21st century. The events outlined in this second book state that someone will step forward to confront an overpowering evil, only to be assassinated. But, there is still the small matter of figuring out who it is, exactly, that seems to be destined to be killed? And, who is the evil that they will stand against? It seems as though the answers should be obvious enough - but, then, the same could have been said for the prophecies outlined in the first book. And, there is still the question of who wrote this second book in the first place.

The most unfortunate thing about this second part is that, as interesting as it all is, the various plot-lines seem to be at near constant risk of collapsing into a confused mess. There are simply too many different threads, and too many new characters - and, the film seems determined to try to give each and every one of them equal attention. There is too much time spent juggling all of these different elements in order to keep things moving. The first, concerned as it was with simply setting the scene, was able to manage all of this fairly well - but, the second seems to be visibly struggling with the task of condensing such complicated source material. Though, given how much actually happens in this second film, the fact that they managed it as well as they did remains pretty impressive, overall.

One element that did creep into the second film which I didn't care for was the presence of some incredibly exaggerated performances. For the most part, the cast plays their parts with the same level of genuine sincerity that made the first work so well - but there are also moments, and characters, that are almost jarring in their overly 'cartoonish' quality. Sure, this was, quite likely, simply a deliberate attempt to model the characters more closely on their portrayal in the manga - but, it really only served as a distraction. One thought that had occurred to me during the first film is that, perhaps, an animated adaptation of the original story would have worked better than live-action, and that feeling only become stronger here. But, the film-makers chose live action - so, we just have to make the best of it.

Overall, though, despite its weaker elements when compared to its predecessor, 20th Century Boys, Part 2: The Last Hope still carries things forward with enough momentum to hold a viewer's interest for the third, and final, film of the 20th Century Boys trilogy.

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