Naoki Urasawa likes to create questions in his stories. In Monster, it was what wass Johann’s endgame? In Pluto, who is killing the world’s most powerful robots and why? 20th Century Boys is filled with a number of questions. Who is the Friend and what’s his connection to a group of boys who grew up in Japan in the early 1970s? What really happened on Bloody New Years Eve? Who is Kanna’s mother? Does Kanna really have some kind of telekinetic power? How did a group of young boys plot the overthrow of Japan? Through these endless questions, Urasawa’s stories become puzzles but he never is willing to give you all the pieces. With each new chapter of 20th Century Boys, he slowly reveals the bigger picture.
Actually, it’s hard to tell if he is revealing the story or making it up as he goes along. Within the first 10 volumes published by Viz Media, Urasawa has already almost completely restarted his story once already. 20th Century Boys started out focusing on Kenji, a convenience shop owner, and his friends as they began to witness their childhood fantasies acted out in their adult life. As kids, they dreamt of how they would be heroes but they needed dastardly villains. As carefully as they plotted out their heroics in secret childhood forts and spiral bound notebooks, they plotted out their enemies’ villainy. The worst they could ever be accused of as kids was being boys with over-active imaginations. But when those imaginary villainous acts start happening in real life, as adults they become terrorists. The first 5 volumes dealt with Kenji and his friends reacting to the rise of the Friend, a mysterious cult leader who somehow has access to Kenji’s childhood fantasies and dreams. The 5th volume was leading up to December 31st, 2000 and Kenji’s confrontation with the Friend.
In the sixth volume, instead of showing the actual meeting between Kenji and the Friend, Urasawa jumped his story 14 years into the future and reintroduced us to Kanna, Kenji’s neice who has her own mysterious ties to the Friend. Just a baby at the start of the series, Kanna is now a teenage girl, juggling school with working for a noodle shop. She’s fiercely protective of his uncle’s legacy, willing to fight anyone who accepts the commonly held belief that he was a terrorist that the Friend protected the world from. Urasawa has also shown us that she’s a natural leader, able to bring opposing sides together to fight for greater enemies. In the last few volumes, she’s even managed to maneuver the warring gangs and mafia families into a truce, convincing them that together they’ll be better suited to face the inevitable dangers caused by the Friend.
The lastest volume, Volume 10: The Faceless Boy, splits its focus between Kanna and Koizumi Kyoko, a girl of similar age to Kanna who has successfully fought indoctrination into the Friend’s cult with the help of one of Kenji’s old friends. Coincidentally enough, Koizumi goes to the same school as Kanna. With that, 20th Century Boys becomes about a couple of 21st century girls, having to clean up the mess of their uncles and fathers. Shifting his focus of the story to the two girls was a good move for Urasawa because it gives him fresh, younger characters to view the story through. The grownup Kenji and his friends were too set in their ways; their story was about maintaining a status quo while seeing all of these familiar terrorist acts happening. Ultimately, no matter how much he tried to make Kenji and his friends into soldiers and leaders, they were just business men who were obviously in over their heads.
In Kanna and Koizumi, Urasawa gives us heroes fighting for against a life they’ve almost always known. Kanna was just a young girl on Bloody New Year’s Eve when her uncle and his friends lost to The Friend and his cult. Kanna and Koizumi have always known a life where the Friend was a thought of as a beneficial leader of men. But Kanna’s always known, or at least suspected the truth while Koizumi is beginning to see the lies behind the Friend’s mask. With these two girls, Urasawa gives us a couple of heroes fighting for a world that they’ve only heard of and can only dream of.
Even as he has refreshed the series by shifting the story 14 years into the future and showing us how a new generation is fighting the good fight, it feels like Urasawa himself does not know what the story is at this point. We are 10 volumes into it, have had one monumental shift in the narrative and it feels like the story is still just in the opening acts of it. Maybe the first five volumes, with ther story about Kenji, were just a prologue to the whole story but after an additional five volumes, Urasawa is still trying to find the real questions that he wants to ask in 20th Century Boys but the questions he finds are beginning to feel random and unfocused.
In this volume, he introduces a new character, Sada Kiyoshi, who may or may not be the Friend. An unseen-up-until-this-point childhood friend of Kenji, Urasawa tries to build mystery around this new character. The problem is that all he has been doing in this series is building mysteries, tossing out red herrings and searching for a way to advance his plot that Kiyoshi feels like a cheat. He’s a missing part of the puzzle that we never knew was missing up until this point.
One of my favorite parts of both Urasawa’s <>Monster and Pluto was the way he handled his ensemble casts of characters. In Monster, he brought all of these characters into and out of the story but he tied them all into the central plot. Each of those characters somehow tied into the story of Johann, the antagonist of the series. It feels like Urasawa is trying to do the same thing here but the end result comes off as more random and haphazard. I wonder if at this point of the creation of 20th Century Boys Urasawa was just as lost and confused as we are? This series is far more sprawling than the other work of Urasawa we have seen before.
20th Century Boys is different than Urasawa’s other books– it’s manic. It’s where he can jump around in time, where he can introduce characters as he feels the need to and where he can even have a weirdly placed homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho show up halfway into the story. 20th Century Boys Volume 10 doesn’t show any sign slowing down or trying to bring the story together. He appears determined to keep building characters and plots. Hopefully he’ll make sense of them soon before the whole series just gets completely out of control.