The end of the world as thought up by children
It can be equal parts exciting and confusing when films escape genre definitions. Take the Japanese 20th Century Boys trilogy, based on the successful manga series. What is it? A cult thriller? Dystopian science fiction? Drama about trauma’s incurred in youth? It’s all of these things at the same time, mixed into an experience that is as disjointed as it is triumphant. It’s a trick the Japanese have mastered almost exclusively.
Before heading into the realm of Orwellian futures, the first film in the series is the most straightforward and introduces the broad range of characters. Though it takes place running up to the turn of the millennium, it is laden with flashbacks to a group of young school children in the seventies. Huddling together in a straw hut they devise a ‘book of prophecy’, chronicling a series of disasters that will hit mankind in the years to come. They’re childlike visions full of lasers and robot invasions from outer space.
Thirty years later one of the kids, Kenji, works at his elders’ convenience store – his dream of becoming a rock star lying in the gutter – and starts to hear rumors. It seems the many bizarre prophecies they created at the time are coming true by the hand of a mysterious cult leader called Tomodachi (‘friend’ in Japanese). No one but the old group knew of the book, so who among them is this masked figure? Since the book predicts increasingly horrific events culminating in world destruction, it seems it’s up to Kenji and the leftovers of the gang to save everyone.
That sounds preposterous and in fact, it is. The two films afterwards take what starts out as an off-beat cult thriller into religious science fiction waters, rife with spiritual revelations, saviors and resurrections. More preposterous is that it works. I will not spoil a thing about the surprising twists and turns of this delicious, heartfelt pulp (cult?) fiction, but let’s say the power of rock plays a big part in the unfolding events. There is no describing the implausible leaps in genre and storytelling this trilogy takes, but it is one-of-a-kind and valuable if only because of that.
It is more than fortunate, however, that the films also prove highly enjoyable. Frequent flashbacks to relevant childhood moments (often subjectively, incompletely narrated) create a layered structure that is full of portent and befitting of the theme of youthful sins coming to haunt you. The trilogy manages to create, sustain and interweave dozens of characters, each with their part to play. Especially interesting is the way their lives seem to continue off screen, even when we don’t see them for hours. When we finally catch up, they wear the years on their face and it’s fun to unravel what happened to them. Despite the insanity of the fiction, the world it inhabits is an utterly believable one with characters that develop in interesting ways. They bear soap opera addictiveness in the way the best television shows do: you can’t wait to see what they’ll experience next.
20th Century Boys is one of the most expensive film projects ever undertaken in Japan. It shows with its sprawling suburban dystopias and grand scenes where thousands of people cheer on the eerily aloof Tomodachi. This trilogy is so recklessly ambitious, so greedy to be everything at once, it often derails wildly as it shoots forward. Narrative cohesion is gladly sacrificed for emotional resonance. It is unlike anything else. But that, too, is a special brand of Japanese insanity. (Or genius.)