So you read Death Note and you loved the poop out of it. Now you’re thirsty for more and ready to graduate into the big leagues, but reading just some other shonen title isn’t enough for you: you want the real deal — something like Death Note, but on the next level, nine thousand times more intense than Light and his killer notebook could ever hope to be. “When will someone write this?” you beseech the heavens, falling to your knees as it begins to rain violently down upon you. “When will someone deliver a manga that is even more twisted and thought-provoking than the last?”
And then heaven will rumble with a thunderous chuckle at your piteousness, for it is well-aware that you are too busy chasing after current anime fads to take the time to look to the past for the classic manga that fits this bill perfectly. That manga is 20th Century Boys, by Naoki Urasawa, the renowned creator of Monster and Pluto. It’s too bad that newer anime fans seem to be afraid of older stuff like its kryptonite or something, and it’s a huge shame that they’re missing out on great anime and manga that isn’t always so shiny-shiny desu (TM), or engineered by science to garner as many followers as possible with the right fanservice and character types. But for those who can appreciate an aesthetic for what it is and journey to the manga of old, they will be in for a real treat… especially when they pick up 20th Century Boys and steamroller all the way through to Volume 16, which comes out this week.
Though it is named after the song, 20th Century Boys is not the rock band manga you’re probably envisioning. Instead, it is a bleak telling of a dystopian future and the events that laid the groundwork for such a dark society to emerge; much like the grim hierarchy that Light set up with the aid of his death note. But unlike Death Note, there’s no Shinigami lurking nearby, casting his shadow over everyone touched by the killer grimoire; instead, it is the machinations of a mere human, whose motives are both grandiose, twisted, and naive. In the Era of Friend, a mysterious, masked individual calling himself Friend plans to eradicate the majority of humanity, leaving behind only the three million he considers to be his true comrades. His methodology is particularly striking to Kenji, who begins to recognize Friend’s contrived apocalypse as the same hypothetical one he and his childhood playmates wrote into a story when they were young. More telling still is the fact that Friend and his followers are united under the emblem that one of Kenji’s friends made up to symbolize their youthful friendship in the early 1970’s. So who is Friend? And how does he know about Kenji and his childhood fantasies of being a hero?
If you’re already familiar with Urasawa, you’ll know that he is an absolute pro at creating high-stakes thrillers that will keep your brain guessing and your heart pounding. Monster, for instance, is the gripping case of a serial killer who has developed a sort of patient-doctor relationship with the man who saved his life as a child. Or Pluto, which is his more adult adaption of the manga classic, Astroboy. But where 20th Century Boys really stands out even amongst Urasawa’s other gems is through its non-traditional storytelling, which is done with flashbacks and time skips. By the time you catch up and start to see the way the pieces fall into place, you’ll realize how well Urasawa crafted his tale, transforming details that are introduced in book one into major plot points.
Urasawa is the recipient of a good number of awards and nominations in both the east and west. He has recieved Japan’s most prestigious manga award, the Shogakukan, three times, the Tezuka Cultural Prize twice, and the Kodansha Manga Award once. He has also been nominated for the Eisner Award here three times. Not to mention that 20th Century Boys has been adapted into a 3-part live action film, an honour which is usually only bequeathed to incredibly popular or successful manga. Truly, for one to appreciate manga where it is today, it is important to venture back to the serious classics and the manga-ka who have defined it as a genre. Without a doubt, Naoki Urasawa stands as the leader of those who follow in the footsteps of our manga grandfather, Osamu Tezuka, himself.