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20th Century Boys
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by Jay Seaver

"The start of something big - 'Lord of the Rings' big."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I considered skipping the "20th Century Boys" double feature at Fantasia, not out of disinterest or fear that it wouldn't be any good, but because the weeks that translations of Naoki Urusawa's manga are released are the ones where I most look forward to visiting the comic shop. Three of about twenty-five volumes have been published so far, so figuring on a bi-monthly schedule, we're looking at about two and a half years of spoilers in one afternoon. But it's a ride!

When he was a kid, back in '69, Kenji Endo dreamed of changing the world with rock & roll. He played for a while, but as the film opens in 1997, Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) is no big star - he's taken over he family business, enduring humiliation from corporate reps after changing it from a liquor store to a franchise convenience store, and looks after Kanna, the baby his sister Kiriko (Hitomi Kuroki) left in his care before disappearing. Things are about to get a lot more exciting for Kenji, though - the police have questions about an entire area family's disappearance, a childhood friend has apparently committed suicide, and the talk at his elementary school reunion is about a religious cult led by a mysterious "Friend", all of them linked by a symbol they created as kids. Even worse, a series of viral outbreaks is mimicking the story Kenji wrote back then, "The Book of Prophecy" - a story which promises much worse to come.

The opening minutes give the audience some idea of just how sprawling the 20th Century Boys saga is; it jumps in time from 1969 to 2015 to 1997 (though not necessarily our 1997), and this film alone will make some other stops. There are literally dozens of characters, many of whom we see as both adults and children, and things introduced early on that won't pay off until the second or perhaps even the third film. And that's after paring it down from a comic series that published weekly 18-page installments for around five years!

The end result is, almost inevitably, something like Watchmen, although director Yukihiko Tsutsumi (best known in the west for the far more compact 2LDK) does not do the fetishizing of panels or distracting slow motion that Zack Snyder did. Both films, however, take stories that were very specifically written for one medium and transpose them to another, sometimes with mixed success. Urusawa is one of the best in the world at the serial, and the 20th Century Boys movie has a few spots that were obvious cliffhangers in the comics, but for a movie, Tsutsumi and the multiple credited writers have to pick right up, maybe with a couple seconds of fading to black. The format also allowed Urusawa to jump to different times and locations for a segment or two without transitions, which is sometimes kind of awkward here.

For all those pitfalls, though, Tsutsumi and company do a very impressive job of making a great comic into a movie without losing much in translation. Though the story has been pared down far enough for this first third to only run 142 minutes, there's still time to get to know most of the characters, as well as moments of humor. The filmmakers sneak little bits in that will prove important later without shining too bright a spotlight on them, and kick things into high gear when the time comes for the movie to feature a ticking clock. The action beats are doled out relatively sparingly, but tend to be jaw-dropping, both in perfect execution and in results. The big, climactic sequence is one of the best-staged and most suspenseful to come down the pike... And a great spot for the cliffhanger!

At the core of the movie, though, is Toshiaki Karasawa's performance as Kenji. There is, from the moment he appears on-screen, an amiability about him: Nice guy, tries to do the right thing, but isn't too substantial. As the movie progresses, we see him become more determined and tougher without seeming to gain an edge - he's more capable and maybe a little smarter, but it doesn't make him bitter or angry. He's able supported by dozens; the most notable being Takako Tokiwa, the former tomboy of the group who now works customs with the world's worst drug-sniffing dog, and Etsushi Toyokawa, as another friend who grew up to become the mysterious bounty hunter "Shogun". Casting is really impressively dead-on across the board, for all time periods; among the kids, I particularly liked Katsuto Yoshii ("Donkey", the space-crazy kid who grows up to be a science teacher) and Tamaki Matsumoto as the younger Yukiji.

It's because of them that "20th Century Boys" manages to be an exciting movie in its own right, rather than just a transcription. By the time things are wrapped up, audiences won't need the trailer that the end credits count down to - most will want to see the next part even if they don't know anything else about it.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=18794&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/21/09 01:04:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: New York Asian Film Festival 2009 For more in the New York Asian Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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