(Starring: Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Hidehiko Ishizuka, Teruyuki Kagawa, Katsuhisa Namase, Jun Nishiyama, Fumiya Ogura)
The plotline takes a few liberties here and there with the source material. Certain aspects that were given breathing room in the manga are cut to the point here, or sometimes even before then. Other events, like the class reunion, were once two separate ones, Keroyon's wedding and the class reunion. Some scenes are cut altogether, like Kenji's visiting Fukube's home, establishing a bit of a connection to him. Because of this scene's exclusion, Fukube has much less a part of the story. In another scene, an elderly detective (Raita Ryu) explains to his colleague (Ken Mitsuishi) that he has done research and discovered who Friend is, even finding him in a school yearbook. In the manga, over two chapters he describes just how he connected the dots, and we see who he talked to. Here, the whole scene becomes just a tease, and the viewer can't connect to him on the same level is in the manga. His death just becomes something bad that happens to somebody who got too close. Gone too is the scene with Professor Shikishima where he shoots down the childish desires of the Friend cult's members to have a giant robot that matches their childhood memories of anime robots. And the scene where Kenji tells off the King Mart representative. And Otcho finding the giant robot in Thailand and burning down a drug warehouse run by the Friends. Unlike Detective Cho's scene, none of these were absolutely vital to the story. Their exclusion is only disappointing to me as a manga fan, but frankly, their deletion actually helps the flow of the story, and its focus on Kenji.
The actors all portray the roles competently, especially Etsushi Toyokawa as Otcho/Shogun. I really believed his intensity. He is sort of the "action hero" of the group, and I bought it. If only they had revealed his past, I would have gotten more of him. Karasawa is a likeable Kenji, though he comes off as being a little too comical at times. The child actors are all especially good, a rarity. They seem like they're already little veterans. The only problem area was the lack of chemistry between some of the characters, but in-universe, it can be attributed to many of them having not seen each other for at least a decade. It's not the greatest acting I've ever seen, but for Japanese live-action, it's pretty exceptional.
The direction, too, is competent, but not excellent. You can tell the director, Yukihiko Tsutsumi really cares about the material and has worked closely with Urasawa, but he's not particularly experienced. There's a scene where a flashback occurs within a flashback, for instance. The movie feels very much like an extended commercial in that the actions of the characters can be exaggerated a little too much, even facial expressions, and it's easy to tell it was the director's doing, and not the performers. However, nothing is too distracting. It's hard to imagine a better live-action adaptation of the manga, however. There was a lot of effort put into the film, with scenes that closely mirror the drawings in Urasawa's manga. Any flaws in the production become negligible by the end, where the movie really comes together to produce an impressive climax to the first chapter of the movies. I really felt like I was watching an entry in a larger epic.
What I find so gripping about the tale is how the protagonists struggle, and often their best efforts seem to play right into the Friend cult's plans. It doesn't for a moment seem like our heroes are going to be able to take down the Friends. They're just (mostly) ordinary folks who are way in over their heads, but they try anyway. The themes of friendship and dreams that are pushed aside are explored with nearly every character. The reality of adulthood versus the dreams of childhood is another omnipresent element that the story approaches in a more subtle manner here than you'd expect from a live-action adaptation of a manga. 20th Century Boys is an interesting and lengthy story, and deserves at least the three movies it has to tell it. I was glad that Urasawa participated in the making of the film, and the participation makes a huge difference. Here's hoping that Beginning of the End is the beginning of an amazing movie trilogy.
Overall Score: 4 out of 5
20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End is available on DVD by Viz Media.