As part of the NEW PEOPLE grand opening, the underground Viz Cinema hosted the regional (and red carpet!) premiere of the first part of the 20th Century Boys trilogy: The Beginning of the End. Takako Tokiwa, the producer, and a mysterious character from the movie (mysterious to me not only because he is actually mysterious, but also because I had not yet read much of the manga), “Friend” made appearances outside, to an army of extras picked to wear cult t-shirts and wave flags (also featuring the movie’s pointing finger-eyeball symbol) for the benefit of Japanese television.
Once inside the theater, we were all given t-shirts and it was implied that it would be good of us to wear them, at least during the filmed Q&A with the producer and the lead actress, Tokiwa, during which it was revealed that the movie versions of 20th Century Boys would hold surprises even for fans of the manga, since the endings have been changed (with mangaka Naoki Urasawa’s blessing, since he did the screenplays as well).
Currently, four volumes of the 24 volume series are out in English, with the fifth due out in October. As it turns out, the movie goes a bit further, but you would expect that, since 24 divided by three is eight.
Of course, not everyone has delved into the print version, so let me briefly address the plot. Kenji is a former rock star who now owns a convenience store and takes care of his MIA sister’s baby, but he ends up getting tangled up with a creepy cult because, well, it was sort of his idea.
As children, he and his friends had documented, picture book style, the activities of a terrorist group, from whom they planned on saving the world. Little did any of them realize they would actually have to do just that once they were in their 30s.
Given the nature of the story, flashbacks are a huge part of the presentation, and the movie managed to pull them off fine. In fact, the flashbacks of the film version had even more personality than the manga — you might think caricature is more the domain of painting and sketching, or at least animation, but in this case, Donkey, with his perpetually runny nose, the terrible (and fat) twins, Yanbo and Mabo, and all the kids have more than leapt off the pages of the manga. In fact, kudos to the casting director in general, and also just to the way they handled the characters. The distinct personalities came through much better in the film.
The movie also succeeds in condensing the story. It was very smart to mash-up the wedding reception of the beginning of the manga with the elementary school reunion that comes later. Some episodes were shortened, such as the first time the boy’s meet Donkey; in the manga, Donkey actually ends up saving Kenji’s life by using his snot-towel to pull him out of a whirlpool at the reservoir, but rather than find such a location and try to explain why there was a whirlpool in a still body of water, they simply had a chase scene across town (important, since it preserves Donkey’s other unique characteristic — he can run really fast in bare feet).
Overall, The Beginning of the End had that typical corny feeling you probably know to expect from live action manga adaptations (some of the death scenes, in particular, were a little hard to take seriously), but at the same time, the cult was creepy enough that I started to feel a little uncomfortable sporting that t-shirt — not too keen on being associated with bio-terrorism and mask-wearing dictator-prophets. You don’t have to be a fan of 20th Century Boys to get the story, but people who know it already will really enjoy recognizing the characters from the manga in their new and improved live-action versions.
Image © 1999, 2006 Naoki Urasawa. Studio Nuts / Shogagukan © 2008 “20th Century Boys” Film Partners