Monday, February 14, 2011

Friend Says It's Fine, Friend Says It's Good

Out of all the films I saw last year, none surprised me more than the film series I will be doing over the next couple of days. It’s the big screen adaptation of a somewhat unknown (to western audiences, at least) but multi award winning anime, and one of the biggest, most expensive film projects ever to come out of Japan. So big, in fact, that one film could not handle it, so it was made into a trilogy. And, in my opinion, the fact that these films exist is the main reason why we definitely do not need a live action Akira. Over the next three days, I will be covering the entirety of the live action adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys.

Today, Part 1: The Beginning Of The End; tomorrow, Part 2: The Last Hope; and then, Part 3: The Last Chapter – Our Flag.

More sprawling, more epic than Watchmen could ever hope to be (but no doubt owing it’s existence to that story’s creation). 20th Century Boys is, in my mind, the best film series to come from Japan ever. It has everything – destruction, hope, fear, love, joy, alienation, friendship, humanity; all wrapped around an absolutely brilliant story.

Let me just say that I flat out implore you to see these films as soon as possible. There is only so much I can say in this thing without it just turning into 5000 words of “see them NOW!”. See them, see them, see them (ok, that’s out of my system...for now). And yes, these will be less review and more me telling you almost everything that, out of respect, I fire off the biggest spoiler horn ever.


The story spans from 1969 to 2017 and tells the tale of a Japan that is taken over by a cult lead by a mysterious, enigmatic masked man named Friend. Kenji and his friends get drawn into the mystery in 1997 after the death of one of their own, which leads them to the symbol of the Friend Cult, a symbol that they came up with as children. As respect to their dead friend, they pledge to get their symbol back. But what spooks them the most is that attacks that are believed to be caused by the Friend Cult mirror those written by Kenji as a child, which leads them to believe that Friend is closer to them than they would like.

Opening with a quick scene in 1969, the film almost immediately jumps to 2017, which lets you know right off the bat that we are in for a long journey. We head to a prison cell where two, as of yet, nameless prisoners are talking between cells – a comic book artist and freedom fighter. On hearing the tale of how The Artist ended up there (drawing a comic in which a hero rises to fight the villain), the freedom fighter tells the story of Kenji, the central character of this whole story.

Jumping to 1997, we find Kenji unsatisfied with his lot (as heroes often start), working in a convenience store, having to look after his niece, Kanna, having to give up his dream of rock stardom (breaking up his band in the process) – but soon gets pulled into the investigation surrounding the disappearance of a local college professor and his family. As the investigation continues, the professor’s name keeps springing up in relation to other deaths. However, during a trip to the professor’s house, Kenji sees a mysterious symbol which shows up again, during his school reunion.

Flashing even further back to 1969, we get the creation of Kenji’s little band of brothers –Otcho, Yoshitsune, Maruo, Keroyon, Fukube, Mon-chan, Donkey and Yukiji. They are dealing with the usual kid things – making secret bases, hiding from bullies, that sort of thing. But that isn’t too important right now, and it will come back. What is important is that the talk of the reunion is the rising popularity of a strange religious cult led by a man named Friend. Soon enough, it is revealed that Friend tells of a prophecy identical to a story written by Kenji as a child, and the symbol that he saw was created by them as children. And this leads them to speculate that Friend is one of their own.

Soon, though, they find that Donkey has died, seemingly of suicide. However, on the day of the funeral, Kenji receives a letter about the symbol, which leads to all manner of speculation about his death. From there, the gang heads out to find the book – buried as part of a time capsule from their time as kids. In there, they find the original symbol, the flag of their gang.

During a flashback, we see both the fact that the gang promise to open the capsule only when they have to fight the Evil Organisation, and that another student saw what they did – Sadakiyo, a strange young lad with his face always hidden behind a monkey mask.  We also see Donkey’s glee at mankind finally walking on the moon, which leads to a discussion of Collins, the one astronaut who didn’t. Flashing forwards, we are introduced to Friend, who is definitely associated with the group in some way – likening himself to the Collins of the group.

Moving further with his own investigation, Kenji soon discovers that both the cult and Professor Shikishima are tied in with Donkey’s death, and that the cult has a far deeper hold on society than he thought. Soon enough, though, the cult shows that it is merciless, removing opposition to it, sometimes through violence, and are even under investigation for possibly having biological weapons (leading to the death of the head investigating officer –Cho-san, at the hands of his unknown to him cult member partner - Yamazaki). During this time, Yukiji, now a customs agent gets drawn into her own investigation, soon meeting up with Kenji and reminding him of the true artist – Otcho, who has now disappeared and prime suspect for Friend’s true identity.

(Don’t worry; I am not doing a step by step walkthrough of the films, much as I may want to...well, I’ll try)

 Flashing back to 1969 again, we get the creation of the Book of Prophecies, a co-production between all the members of the gang. All who provide ideas that are coming true, thanks to Friend.  In the book, humanity gets wiped out – first via a virus, then by a giant robot. And it is during this time that Kenji finds out that Friend has Donkey murdered for trying to get people to see that he, Friend, is bad (as a child, Donkey witnessed the death of another class mate, Katsumata, which ties in to Friend’s creation) – and that he has been charged , from the words of Kamisama – a homeless man who fashioned himself as a prophet, with protecting his sister’s baby and saving the world.

Thus begins the true hero’s journey – with Kenji finding out that his own family is involved somehow in the Friend cult, with his sister Kiriko (Kanna’s mother) somehow being involved in the creation of the virus.  Running from what they remember from the Book of Prophecies, the group find themselves in a race against time to stop the next round of attacks, at Narita Airport. A race that they lose quite handily; as they are reminded by Manjome, a higher up in the Friend cult, that when the Book of Prophecies was written, Narita Airport was not built. And so, Haneda Airport goes up in flames. Kenji and Yukiji, though, see firsthand the hold that Friend has over his followers as, following their failure to take Kanno, they turn on one of their own, immolating him and gutting the convenience store.

Following this, Kenji interrupts a Friend-sponsored rock concert, making himself known to all and meeting Friend face to ... mask, who reveals Kenji as the mind behind it all – a charge he rallies against. As Kenji is pulled away by Friend loyalists, Friend says that he is not to be hurt as his part is not over. Nor is Friend’s, as he is up for election in the next elections, moving his cult from that to a full-fledged political party. In the rubble of his store, Kenji finds the true Book of Prophecies and reads in horror at what is to come at the end of the millennium – a full fledged virus attack on Tokyo. And that, according to the book, it’s up to he and his friends to stop it.

Jumping to the year 2000, we find that not only are Kenji and his friends still after Friend, but now they have a much harder task ahead of them, as the Friendship Democracy Party (FDP) has won the election and has placed Kenji in the position of Number 1 Terrorist. Moving to an unnamed SE Asian area, we are introduced to a longhaired, ass kicking badass. It’s Otcho, who is soon drawn back into the group as well as being cleared of being Friend. Kenji leads an underground resistance against the FDP, and is trying to both reunite the 9 heroes and decipher the Book of Prophecies.

As they can only gather 7 of 9, they have the idea to bring in Yanbo and Mabo, the twin bullies from their childhood –as they too knew of the Book of Prophecies. However, this is in no way a good idea, with the expected outcome.  Kenji, however, still believes in the power of music and is surviving primarily as a busker, with only one song (“If you put all you’ve got into it, a song can change the world”) and is still protecting Kanna – eventually sending her out of the city as the end of the millennium draws closer. The group builds in numbers, both in human and in weapon form, as they prepare to strike against the FDP and soon find themselves on the run.

Soon enough, the attacks written about in the Book come to pass, with a giant virus-spreading robot let loose of Tokyo (hey, it’s Tokyo – that was bound to happen eventually, and also, the robot kind of looks like it just stepped out of a cutscene in any number of steampunk flavoured JRPG video games) on what is soon to be known as Bloody New Year’s Eve, killing everyone with awesome CGI blood. And it is up to the heroes to band together to stop it. And, with Kenji delivering a rousing speech all about rockers who didn’t die young, the heroes have a world to save. But, saving the world comes at the price of Fubuke and Kenji who both give their lives to blow the robot up.

Returning to the prison, we see a prisoner trying to dig his way out. And outside of the FDP headquarters, a grown up Kanna is proclaimed the world’s only hope. Or, at the very least, public nuisance number one.

To be continued...

Part one is, given the trilogic nature of this particular beast, a lot of character introduction and story set up, particularly as it pertains to the death of Donkey (and it really should, since that is the catalyst of the entire adventure), with lots of jumps between 69 and 97. As far as anime goes, this is one of my favourite tricks (going back to the first time that I saw Akira) and it is used to great effect, not only in part one, but all throughout the trilogy. Moreso in the first film, particularly when it shows Kenji and Yukiji standing up to bullies Yanbo and Mabo - basically kids being kids, when the biggest problem in the world was someone bigger than you.

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