This is actually a review of both 20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys but it made the title too long. Besides, as you will find out later, I’m not sure you can really consider there two separate series.
Now some of you may have heard me say in the past that I tried to read 20th Century Boys when I was younger but I did not care for it and soon abandoned the manga. I proclaimed that it was just not my thing. And I meant that. And yet, despite sincerely believing that 20th Century Boys was not my thing, I also couldn’t quite forget about it all together and throughout the years I would often think that I should try the manga once more. And then the day came!
Why I Picked up 20th Century Boys
I actually found out a friend of mine had the first volume so I figured this was fate telling me it was time to pick it up again!
Humanity, having faced extinction at the end of the 20th century, would not have entered the new millennium if it weren’t for them. In 1969, during their youth, they created a symbol. In 1997, as the coming disaster slowly starts to unfold, that symbol returns. This is the story of a group of boys who try to save the world.
For Kenji, a simple convenience store manager who once dreamed of becoming a rock ‘n’ roll musician, a host of memories from his past come rushing back when one of his childhood friends mysteriously commits suicide. Could this new death be related to the rise of a bizarre new cult that’s been implicated in several other murders and disappearances? Determined to dig deeper, Kenji reunites with some of his old buddies in the hope of learning the truth behind it all.
My First Impression
Boy I’m dumb…
What I liked
I honestly have no clue what past Irina was on. 20th Century Boys is amazing. I devoured the 22 volumes and immediately got 21st Century Boys to continue the story.
20th Century Boys is very much a plot-driven story and I found that plot fascinating. I won’t deny that it does get convoluted after a while but the foundations are solid enough to withstand a few plot holes. It’s a mystery that slowly builds and gives you just enough answers to keep you hooked while raising more questions. As a reader, you might find yourself thinking, what is going on? but in a good way. Not in a this stuff makes no sense kind of way. As a result, the pages just kept turning themselves as I couldn’t wait to find out more.
However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t great characters. In fact, 20th Century Boys really shines through its characters. I have to admit that hero Kenji, whom I really loved, somehow ended up one of my least favourites in the end. It’s not that he isn’t cool but he was cool, to begin with. This is a large ensemble cast that we follow through decades. We get to see them at their best and at their worse and surprisingly all of them get a chance to grow and shine.
My personal favourite is Yoshitsune. That man is a hero through and through. But I also really liked Yukiji. She’s a delicately balanced character the type of which we almost never get to see. Even the villains like Manjome or the twins have a moment in the sun. I thought it was a particularly nice touch how throughout all the years, Yanbo and Mabo never once realized they were bullies.
The characters grow organically, sometimes have setbacks or fall back into bad habits. All of them are flawed. Most of them are honestly trying to do what they consider to be the right thing and sometimes that clashes.
And throughout everything, there is one central theme that comes through. It seeps out of every page and can be seen in every character. Friendships are important and they are good. Having friends matters and when you have friends, you have to treat me the best you can. This is never actually said in 20th Century Boys. It’s not the sort of story that spells things out like that. Besides, there are killer viruses and giant robots all over the place. No one has time for such sap. But if it was said, it would be in a much better way. Because Naoki Urasawa is a veru good writer.
Look, 20th and 21st Century Boys is an epic. It’s very long, there are a ton of characters, it gets a bit complicated in parts and a whole lot happens. It even made me like the pope. Take that sentence in… There’s no way I can properly parse it in a single post without skipping over most of what the story actually is. What I can say is that it’s very well-paced, it has carefully crafted characters and some great use of classic science fiction tropes. The plot does get a bit heavy but in my opinion never enough to collapse into itself. And that’s impressive.
There’s also something I personally really appreciate about Urasawa’s writing. I’ve noticed it in his other works as well. He is an optimist. No matter how bleak the situation, there is always a feeling of hope that comes through in his work. He doesn’t relish in killing his darlings and treats his characters with both care and respect. He doesn’t feel the need to pile on the tragedy in order to create a sense of importance but rather gives ordinary grief the space and consideration it needs to be effectively devastating. I could be entirely wrong, but it feels like we may just be similar in our outlook and that’s part of why I resonated with this story so much. I will now make my way through everything else the man has written.
I have mentioned it but I think I should just be straight, it does get convoluted towards the end. The main antagonist is someone simply identified as Friend or The Friend and a lot of the manga is concerned with the true identity of this Friend. It’s sort of the core mystery. And the reveal is kind of messy. It dips into soap opera at times if you ask me. By then I couldn’t care less but I also have to be honest in that it doesn’t all come together as neatly as it could have.
Also, 20th Century Boys is incomplete. The last panel of the last volume literally ends with the words “To be continued” and I actually went on the internet to find out if I was missing volumes. I wasn’t. It turns out the story is continued in 21st Century Boys and I think that’s kind of a pain. It’s no big deal when you know. You can simply buy the two volumes of 21st Century Boys as the last volumes of 20th Century Boys which they effectively are. But when you don,t know that (like me) you may end up having to wait a week to receive what is effectively the most important part of the story. And that is infuriating!
I absolutely loved how we got to see behind the curtain and got some insight into the particular failures of giant robots or space ships. It was great that these epic machines were essentially held together with tape and bubble gum when it came down to it and were no more than ineffectual resource drains. But I would have loved for them to go into the science a bit more. It seemed like it was just added on rather superficially. Granted, it’s not all that important to the story but it did leave me wanting more in that aspect.
This isn’t a drawback for me in any way, in fact, it’s a huge plus. No one really gets a happy ending. Then again, if you’re like me, you think everyone got a hugely happy ending! But throughout the story, everyone has to make compromises. They have to give up their dreams, maybe bits of their integrity, they lose sight of themselves and change not always for the better. At the end of the day, these are characters that survived traumatic events and it has taken a toll on all of them. So no one gets to just ride off into the sunset with a perfect life now. Everyone still has little things to work through, or maybe to atone for. They don’t all end up together basking in their friendship.
Like I said, I actually loved that. If you disregard the plot events of the end, the actual individual character arcs all end in highly satisfying ways if you ask me. But I could understand that some people find them a bit unsettled.
I already admitted I wouldn’t be able to capture 20th Century Boys in a single post. I usually do manga reviews (or first impressions) because they are faster and shorter than my other posts. And look what happened 1500 words and counting. I haven’t even touched on half of the elements that struck me in the manga. Like Britney and Mariah, and queer representation. Or Cho-chan and how role models can both inspire us and hold us back. Also the pope! I know I said 20th Century Boys is about friendship and it is. But it’s also about religion and it has a whole lot to say about it.
Maybe I will eventually hone my skills enough to be able to discuss these with you. In the meantime though, this is what I can say about 20th Century Boys. I finished it last night. Well, I finished the last volume of 21st Century Boys and it felt like an ending. Then I put it away in my bookshelf and went back to bed. And I realized I was smiling. Grinning like an idiot. The book left me happy and hopeful for the future. It reminded me that we can all be heroes and that’s it’s o.k. if we’re not. And if it can do the same for one other person, that would be great!
I’m going to annoy all my friends into reading it…