2009 promises to be another year where the cinema is dominated by comic book adaptations and the first of this year’s crop, having been released theatrically on February 20, is an epic live action adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s manga of the same name.
20th Century Boys (known as 20-seiki Shônen in its native Japan) is the first of a trilogy, and so presumably is based on the first seven or so volumes out of a total of 22 (24 if you include the final two volumes entitled 21st Century Boys). Being a faithful adaptation of the manga, it follows the labyrinthine structure of the source material, including flash-forwards, flashbacks, dream sequences and the same scene repeated from various points of view. However, this isn’t a technique that necessarily suits the film - unlike, say, Rashomon - as the plot of this first instalment at least is relatively simple… A group of friends in the 1970s form a club and together concoct a story about the end of the world. A quarter of a century later, this fateful tale seems to be coming true, whether by prophecy or design, with one member of the group having become a charismatic cult leader who is entrancing the whole of Japan.
Manga author Naoki Urasawa’s most famous comic is called Monster, and is an apocalyptic tale about a serial killer created by an eugenics experiment, so it should come as no surprise to learn that he is a fan of Stephen King, who has himself explored the subject in his novel IT, which was adapted for television in the 1990s and has heavily influenced 20th Century Boys. IT and 20th Century Boys share the same qualities and problems - the scenes of the kids in the past are gripping, evocative and engaging, the scenes of the same characters in the present less so, and when history starts to repeat itself you can’t help but think that you got the point the first time around.
20th Century Boys also suffers from the current obsession in making bloated trilogies for the cinema, presumably based on economies of scale - you might as well make two or three films for only a bit more (as you already have the actors, sets and director already hired) and hopefully triple the profits. However, like the Matrix and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies and the unfinished Night Watch series, the running time of this should have been trimmed considerably, not only for the story as a whole, but also for the individual instalments.
Those fans of Stephen King who miss his earlier work will find a lot to enjoy in 20th Century Boys, but as was the case with the TV adaptation of IT, once they’ve seen the first instalment it will take fans a lot of patience to sit through another two and a half hours of the story, let alone five, to get to the final resolution.