Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s hit “20-Seiki Shonen” (“20th Century Boys”) trilogy is based on one of those “what if” premises that may look almost childishly obvious, but, from a commercial standpoint, is simply brilliant.
In 1969 a gang of small boys write down disastrous “predictions” about the future that read like steals from the era’s monster and SF movies, concluding with the end of the world. So far, so innocuous.
Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa), the leader of the gang, grows up to become a failed pop musician and full-time convenience-store manager, while caring for his sister’s baby girl, Kanna. Then, in 1997, the “predictions” start coming true, with the help of a shadowy cult led by a masked man known only as “Tomodachi” (“Friend”). Kenji becomes determined to stop the cult and enlists the help of his boyhood pals.
In other words, Kenji and the gang drop the dull business of their adult lives to become saviors of the world — their boyhood dream. But Tomodachi turns out to be a wily and dangerous opponent. When they try to thwart his dastardly plan to wipe out the human race on New Year’s Eve 2000 — the last day of the 20th Century, they inflict damage, but do not bring him down. Kenji goes missing in the chaotic aftermath, while his right-hand man, Occho (Etsushi Toyokawa), is thrown into prison and the other survivors, now labeled “terrorists,” go underground .
In 2015, Kanna (Airi Taira), now a feisty teenager, learns that Tomodachi, now a world messiah-cum-dictator, has sent his minions after her for knowing too much. She escapes with the aid of a friendly young cop (Naohito Fujiki), but her struggle against Tomodachi and his cult have just begun. She also discovers, to her shock and horror, a most important fact about her adversary.
There are many more surprising plot twists, as well as dozens more characters, in the first two films of the trilogy — not to mention Naoki Urasawa’s manga series on which they are based, which runs to hundreds of pages and has sold 28 million copies in paperback editions.
The third and last film, however, unfolds in the final-confrontational way you would expect. Kenji, returned from his mysterious exile, and Occho, free from prison, unite with Kanna, her fearless guardian Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa) and other allies to stop Tomodachi from exterminating humanity, after which he and his followers intend to inherit the devastated Earth.
If you’ve seen the first two films and have a burning desire to know how the story ends, you certainly won’t find out from me. Distributor Toho, in a first of sorts, cut the last 10 minutes of part three in the prints that it screened for the media. So I am in the same position as someone who has seen most of “Casablanca,” but still doesn’t know whether Rick got on the plane with Ilsa.
What I do know is that, despite nifty retro-future effects, such as a huge, menacing RoboCop-ish robot and two 1950s-vintage UFOs that spray a deadly virus — and gruesomely realistic scenes of mass panic and death, the film lacks action-movie tension. Tsutsumi’s slickly competent direction is less to blame, however, than the story’s arc and conception of the characters.
Tomodachi, we see, is, not the ruthless, evil madman of stereotype, but rather the lost, lonely boy who never grew up — and still pathologically nurses the resentments of his childhood. Surrounded by untrustworthy sycophants, this strange, isolated creature has built an empire on fakery and fear, but it turns out to be a hollow construction, more like the Emerald City in the “Wizard of Oz” than the Death Star of the “Stars Wars” films.
By contrast, Kenji, Occho and Yukiji have, in the course of their battle with Tomodachi, matured into strong, competent adults, who have put away childish things forever. Also, watching Kenji play a mean rock guitar, Occho effortlessly climb a 50-meter wall and Yukiji casually toss young opponents in the judo dojo, it struck me that film’s true target audience is the same Boomer generation as these three ageless heroes.
More than a thrill ride for teenagers, the film — and the entire trilogy — is a big shout-out to folks whose youthful hopes and ambitions have given way to middle-age worries. Its message: Maybe you can’t be 12 again (and what a tragedy if you could), but you can still find your mojo. “20-Seiki Shonen” is the anti-”Peter Pan.”