In 1997, thirty-something Kenji Endo (Karasawa) runs a King Mart converted from his fathers liquor store, his dreams of being a rock and roll star behind him. When a professor he delivers beer to disappears, he comes across a familiar symbol. Through a series of events, inolving a class reunion, and the death of a friend, he comes to the knowledge that the symbol isn't just one that his friends used for their close-nit group, but it's now used by a popular cult led by a figure named "Friend". Friend is using stories Kenji and his friends dreamt up in the late 60s to rise to power. Kenji rounds up as many of his old friends as he can to combat the threat of the oncoming century, the threat of the prophecy he dreamed up, that the Friend cult is making true.
***** SPOILERS *****
Synopsis (Spoiler Version):
In 1973, a boy named Kenji Endo plays T.rex's "20th Century Boy" over the P.A. at his school, but the rebellion he was hoping to inspire never happens.
In 2015, a man is imprisoned for writing a manga about a hero who saves the world from a threat, only to turn out to be the real villain. He tells this plot to the man imprisoned in the cell across from his, who finds it humorous.
In 1997, Kenji (Karasawa) is working at a King Mart, a convenience store converted from his father's liquor store, and living with his elderly mother. He takes care of his sister's baby daughter, Kanna, who she left with them. Two police officers arrive and question Kenji about a missing professor he delivers beer to regularly who has gone missing. Upset that the man disappeared before he paid for his deliveries, Kenji goes to his house to retrieve the bottles, and notices a strange symbol drawn on the house.
At a class reunion, Kenji talks to childhood friends Maruo (Ishizuka), Yoshitsune (Kagawa), and Keroyon. Other classmates, including Fukube (Kuranosuke Sasaki) and Mon-chan (Takashi Ukaji) appear as well, and they discuss a cult that's appeared that uses the symbol Kenji found. His classmates tell him that it's a symbol they used to use as a group of children, when they would play together.
The next day, Kenji learns that a friend of his, a boy he called Donkey, who had become a teacher, died on the day of the reunion. Preparing for the funeral, he finds a note to him from Donkey with the symbol of the cult in it, asking if he remembers it. He attends his funeral, along with Maruo, Yoshitsune, Keroyon, and Mon-chan, and they reminisce about their friend, who back in 1969, went into the elementary school at night to turn off the fish tank when everyone else was too scared to. However, Donkey was so frightened of something he saw in the school, he jumped out of the second story window and ran off. In the present, the gang remembers that they buried a bunch of items somewhere near their hideout, and go to dig it up. Inside a canister they find several items, including a giant flag with their symbol, the symbol of the Friend cult. The group wonders who could have come up with the symbol. Fukube remembers another child that used to play around near them, Sadikiyo, who supposedly died.
Another of Kenji's childhood friends, Yukiji (Tokiwa), who has come across the symbol and and its connection to the Friend cult, visits him at the King Mart. She asks him to attend a conference for victims of the Friend cult. Meanwhile, a detective named Cho-san and a fellow detective named Yama discuss the Friend cult and their possible connection to disappearances and deaths by blood loss. Cho reveals he discovered who Friend is, but since he is retiring, leaves the case in Yama's hands. As he leaves to attend his grandson's birthday party, he suddenly dies. It's revealed that Yama is in the Friend cult.
A group of homeless men, among them a man they call Kami-sama (God), who has strange premonitions, come across a dying man who wants to see Kenji. They bring Kenji to him, and he reveals that he was the one who killed Donkey on orders of the Friend cult, and that Kanna needs to be protected before Friend gets to her. This leads Kenji to go through his sister Kiriko (Hitomi Kuroki)'s room, where he discovers a letter with the Friend cult symbol in it. He asks his mother about his sister's activities before she left Kanna with them, and she tells him she had been propositioned by a businessman, but that she turned him down to take care of the store, since Kenji was too busy with his rock pursuits. Shortly after she turned him down, the businessman died.
Talking to Maruo and Yoshitsune, Kenji suddenly remembers something he thought up as a child about an airport being blown up, and rushes to save Yukiji, who works as a narcotics finder at one. However, when he gets there, a man named Manjoume (Renji Ishibashi) tells him he has the wrong airport, and explosions go off at another airport. He then warns Kenji to take care of Kanna. Kenji and Yukiji rush back to the King Mart, where Friend's followers have overrun the store to look at Kanna. Kenji manages to retrieve Kanna from them, but the store is burned down. In the wreckage of the store, Kenji finds the Book of Prophecy, a notebook of stories he came up with as a kid that the Friend cult seem to be following. Kenji goes to a concert for Friend cult members to confront them. Friend appears, and reveals that he is Kanna's father. Before he can react, the cultists carry him off. Distraught, Kenji looks through the Book of Prophecy.
Years pass. In Thailand, a man called "Shogun" rescues a kidnapped Japanese tourist. Shogun is really Otcho (Toyokawa), Kenji's childhood best friend. Kenji contacts him to return to Japan to help him. When he arrives in Japan, he sees that the Friends have become a political party. He meets up with Kenji, who has gone underground (both literally and figuratively) and lives with Kami-sama and the homeless. Kanna is now older, and worships her uncle Kenji. Kenji gathers a group consisting of himself, Otcho, Maruo, Yoshitsune, Mon-chan, Yukiji, and Fukube to combat the Friend group. They try to get the help of two others they knew as children, bullies called Yanbo and Mabo, but they alert the Friends, and Kenji's HQ is raided by the police, who find it empty. Kenji's group got away because Kami had a premonition. They find a new HQ, where they wait for the Friends to make their move.
An explosion destroys the Diet Building, killing most of the government, except for the members of the Friend Party. On New Years Eve, 2000, a giant robot, designed with the help of the abducted robotics professor, stops through Tokyo, spraying a biological weapon all over the place. Similar attacks occur around the world. Kenji and his team prepare to move out to stop it, when Otcho reveals that the Friend symbol, the one he came up with, came from the Shonen Sunday magazine's "turn the page" symbol and the fact he was known as "Bug-Eyed" as a child. Leaving Kanna with Kami and his homeless cohorts, Kenji and his team move out.
Kenji, Yoshitsune, and Maruo, wearing protection from biological weapons, take a truck with dynamite under the giant robot. It turns out to be mostly a balloon with tank treads hidden. Yukiji and Mon-chan try to break into the Friend Party headquarters, to no avail. Otcho and Fukube find a man with a controller on top of a building. Fukube wrestles with the man and they both end up falling off the roof. However, the robot continues moving. Kenji climbs up inside of the robot to the controls, but find it unmanned. He sets up explosives inside of it, but then notices another "robot" approaching, one with the Friend symbol on it, and Friend himself riding it. As the timer runs out, he demands that Friend reveal himself. Friend obliges him, and Kenji is shocked to see who it is (it isn't seen). The timer runs out and the explosives go off, destroying the robot.
In 2015, Kanna is a teenager, and openly defies the Friends by ripping a notice from them down from a bulletin board. The police chase her as she happily runs off.
To Be Continued (in the next movie)
Live-action adaptations of manga/anime are such a crap shoot. Actually, it's more like a pile of crap (Dragon Ball: Evolution, anyone?). It's the same with American comics, most of the time, but American movie studios have the budgets to make potentially great adaptations of Batman, Spider-Man, and the like, and have. Japanese live-action itself is, by American standards, very amateur. But, now and then, you get some decent adaptations, like the Death Note live-action movies. It seems that Japanese studios are at least better with their material than we are.
My favorite manga of all time, 20th Century Boys, has the luxury of being adapted into three movies that are written by the original manga author, Naoki Urasawa, famous for Monster and Pluto. The first of the films, subtitled "Beginning of the End" has been licensed and released by Viz, who also brought the manga over. The movie covers approximately the first four and a half volumes of the manga, though it rearranges some events, compresses others, and brings in material from later volumes. It's certainly a different beast from its manga, but it's also very faithful at the same time, making it a real gem.
Skipping across several eras can be a taxing plot element for a reader of a manga or viewer of a movie, especially if they do it often. In manga it works a little better, but if you see it repeatedly in a movie, it tends to wear you out. Here, at least, they cut down some of that and transitioned a little better from one time to the next than the manga did. We have three main periods: 1969, when a young Kenji (Jun Nishiyama) plays with his friends in the fortress they made tying together long grass. 1997, when Kenji is an adult, and struggling to juggle managing a convenience store and caring for his neice. Finally, 2015, when one of Kenji's friends is imprisoned along with a man who was shut away for drawing a manga, a time when Kanna has grown into a young woman. There are other time periods briefly visited, as well, such as during Kenji's college years, when his sister Kiriko was being courted by a businessman.
Obviously, great pains were put into making everyone and everything in this movie look authentic. The sets look like the settings in the manga. Most of the actors look like their manga counterparts, especially the children. Yet, nothing seems cartoonish-looking or out-of-place, other than the CGI robot, and even that was better than I expected. You can almost smell the field the children played in. You even hear the music they listened to in the manga, with "Like A Rolling Stone" and "20th Century Boy" (the natural theme for the movie). It looks like they really made use of the 6 billion yen (US: $60 million) budget.
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.