Friday, October 14, 2011

20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End (2008)

New York Comicon and Anime Festival started last night at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. As you know I and several of my fellow Unseen writers are seeing the sights and taking in the panels. In order to close out our week of comic films in honor of the convention I’m going to take a look at the three film adaption of Naoki Urasawa's massive manga The 20th Century Boys.

The original plan was to do the films as part of this past Septembers long film series at labor day but circumstance brought on a change of heart and we’re doing the films here instead. Truth be told the films probably should have been done back in September since despite there being three films, each running close to two and a half hours, the films are really one story.

I should tell you at the start that outside of the first film you can not watch any of them as stand alone films and even with the first film, when you get to the end of it you’ll want to keep going.

I'll add that the films are a mess with way too much going on and way too many characters. It’s a problem of compression, which is understandable considering the film covers some 40 plus years of time.

Lastly you need to know that in the end, when you get to the end of the almost 8 hours of running time you will be kicked to the curb. Somehow, despite all the flaws, the film pulls it all together and you have arguably one of the best (if ragged) science fiction tales you’ll ever run across.

The story begins back in 1969-70 when Kenji and his friends form a club and devise a story about an alien take over and the end of the world. They end up burying the story and a flag in field…only to forget about it.

Flash forward to 1999 the friends are getting together at a reunion for their grammar school. As the group is having dinner they discuss what has happened to their missing friends as well as the rise of a cult around a mysterious leader known as Friend. Something is wrong with the cult, and what’s worse it’s some how connected to them, a fact that is driven home when they realize that all of the signs and symbols of Friend are in fact based upon the story they had come up with decades earlier. Things are further complicated when Friend’s crazed followers begin to show an unnatural interest in Kenji’s infant niece (who was left in his care by his sister who has mysteriously disappeared).

The film jumps backward and forward through time showing us the events that set everything in motion as well as frantic attempt by the various members of Kenji’s gang to stop Friend and his mad attempt to destroy the world.

Your head will hurt and you will be over whelmed as people and events come at you fast and furious. There is no getting around it, things are messy and it’s not helped by the fact that there are two set of the same characters, those in 1970 and those “now”. I won’t lie, I had been reading the manga that the film is based on, and which is covers much of this first film when I saw it the first time and I was lost at times. There is simply too much material to take in on the first go through. Things really didn’t come together until I saw it a second time.

Don’t panic and don’t give up. It will all come together in the next film (remember this is story that takes 8 hours to tell).

If you can make it through this film and it’s set up you’ll be all set to go once the story kicks it into high gear about half way into the next film. Yes, I know that’s asking a great deal of an audience, to stay with a long confusing story for as long as it does, but it’s worth it. The pay off, when it comes is fantastic.

This isn’t to say that this film is bad, its not, actually far from it. It’s just there is so much going on and there is so many characters you can feel the compression that is taking place. On the other hand the film (all three parts) is not ultimately not a literal version of the manga. Changes were made along the way in particular the film and the manga end differently, the result of the manga not being finished when the films went into production.

As I said the plotting is ragged, and it insists on throwing a huge amount of information at you, but it’s so refreshing to see a film that treats it’s audience as being adult enough and smart enough to be able to work with it.

Do yourself a favor and get this film and it’s sequels and clear the decks and watch them all over a weekend, or a long rainy afternoon.

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