If I was going to describe 20th Century Boys in a high concept manner to someone in an elevator, I’d describe it as It meets The Stand. It’s a story that takes place over a vast scope of time, almost 30-40 years, with multiple time skips, and an apocalypse in-between, with a fundamental premise of a group of childhood friends being forced to face a great evil as adults. The difference is, the evil in It is a clearly supernatural, unearthly evil. The evil in 20th Century Boys is very, very human.
There are some spoilers below the cut.
1970s: A group of friends – Kenji, Yoshitsune, Mauro, Keroyon, Otcho, Donkey, and Yukiji hang out, go to the world’s fair, and built a secret base in a grassy field. They’re also bullied by some very muscular twins. On a whim the friends come up with the “Book of the Prophecy” – a mock megalomaniacal plan inspired by Tokusatsu films and TV series like Ultraman, James Bond movies, and early Super Robot anime (like Giant Robo).
1999: The friends have grown apart over the decades as time and life has gone on. Kenji is helping to raise his niece, Kanna. However, when Donkey is reported to have committed suicide, Kenji goes to investigate and discovers a vast conspiracy attempting to carry out the first part of the plan in The Book, starting on New Year’s Eve, lead by a person known only as The Friend.
2014: Kenji’s circle not only failed to save the world but were officially blamed for the attacks of the turn of the millennium – known as “Bloody New Year’s Eve.” Kenji is missing and Kanna is now living off the grid in Tokyo, being raised by Yukiji and working at a Chinese Restaurant. The Friends (the conspiracy that carried out the Bloody New Year’s Eve attacks) have gotten an ever increasing amount of control of the Japanese government. When Kanna learns of an impending assassination attempt against the Pope, to be carried out by the Friends as an effort to consolidate their control of Japan, Kanna plunges into the world of Japanese organized crime in an attempt to stop the assassination attempt.
3 FE (Friend Era): The Friends have unleashed a massive, apocalyptic plague across the Earth. Much of the planet is a depopulated wasteland, and the Friends have more heavily consolidated their control over Earth. Freedom of movement is greatly restricted, and communication is tightly controlled. Kanna has become the leader of a revolutionary movement against the Friends, with some of the other people from Kenji’s circle. And somewhere in the Japanese wastelands, a man with a guitar is approaching Tokyo.
“Everybody says it’s just like rock and roll”
20th Century Boys is a manga that is drenched in nostalgia, but in a way that doesn’t feel cloying or pandering. This is helped, at least for me, by the fact that it’s nostalgia for a past that has a sense of novelty. It’s nostalgia for 1970s Japan, basically after the end of the occupation, but while reconstruction and the country was on the brink of the bubble economy.
Further, the events of the 1970s are always told in flashback in later eras – we start in 1999 – at the time the manga started, and after the brink of the bubble economy. The place the protagonists have in Japanese society is, prior to Bloody New Years Eve, not necessarily a happy or prosperous one. Unlike, for example, It (which I’ve been reading off and on), our protagonists don’t go from Losers in the past to being successful in the present after beating It and leaving Derry, before ultimately getting called back.
This is emphasized by the fact that our protagonists lose a lot before they win. They don’t stop Bloody New Years Eve, they stop the assassination of the Pope but this doesn’t stop the ascension of The Friend – and the Friend’s masterstroke happens over the course of the second time skip. It’s not because our protagonists are hapless or incompetent. They are outmaneuvered until their opponent makes a mistake. No matter what time we see them in, our heroes are on the back foot.
“Everybody says he’s just like Robin Hood”
This leads to the other aspect of the story – because or protagonists are always outsiders, they’re also always in a good position to see the wheels of oppression in a way we don’t always see in manga. We see a 2014 Tokyo with an immigrant population that is disenfranchised, in a way where it’s entirely possible for contemporary (as of the manga’s publication) Tokyo have, and one which is subject to discrimination in a way that the modern population is believably subject to.
Where the story steps into the fantastical isn’t that this population exists or is discriminated against – it’s that The Friends are planning to scapegoat them for the assassination of the Pope. Consequently, it feels like the shift in time to just in the future of when this book was originally published, combined with taking that one step further is enough to slip even talking about Japan having immigrant communities (something I’ve noticed rarely comes up in anime & manga) under the radar.
Additionally, the way each era’s story is shaped works incredibly well, with each era having its own plot, which builds on the events of the last time skip (as well as the events of the ’70s). Consequently, each era’s story, while not entirely self-contained, is very much its own story.
Consequently, it’s a story that is adventurous, engaging, and exciting, with fantastical elements, while still feeling mature. It’s a story that took me an incredibly long time to read (I started reading it back in 2017), but which I’ve enjoyed immensely.
As of this review, Viz has started re-issuing the manga in omnibus editions, which is honestly the way I’d recommend reading it. Omnibus 1 is available from Amazon.com and Rightstuf.com – links to both are below. buying anything through those links helps to support the site.