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must. not. look. at. camera.

must. not. look. at. camera.

An artfully adapted version of the popular manga that honorablly stays true to every minute detail and gets everything from the manga right but everything else wrong.

As Scott Mccloud explained in his revolutionary book “Understanding Comics”, one way to think about comics is to see it as sequential art, where there is a kind of closure between the frames which requires the human imagination to fill in the gaps based on the frames surrounding them (example).  In other words, comics (or so-called “graphic novels”), have their own form of storytelling.

20th Century Boys the manga is one prime example of comics as a form of art and storytelling.  In this triple-award winning series, Naoki Urasawa crafts a deviously intriguing world where the most subtle changes in a facial expression can tell you a million words about what the character is thinking and where the smallest plot detail can shape the overall story arc.  The characters are vivid, the plot thickens to a pulp, and the “gaps” it leaves masterfully incites your imagination.  It is a classic story about characters with flawed pasts, heroes that are villains, villains that are heroes, and the childhood dreams we grow to forget about.

Kenji Endo (played by Toshiaki Karasawa of Casshern “fame”) is your average midlife failure.  A wannabe rock star during his younger years, he now lives with his mother and his runaway sister’s fatherless daughter and makes a living running his family’s patron-less convenience store.  However, one day he hears about a mysterious cult run by a suspicious entity who goes by the name of “Friend” and uses a symbol that is hauntingly familiar to him.  As the story unravels, Kenji finds himself in the middle of a worlwide conspiracy to take over the world that is somehow linked to a childhood story he once crafted with his friends.  And thus, it is left to Kenji who must call upon not only his childhood memories, but also their dated dreams and beliefs, that, together with the power of his friends, the good can smite evil and heroes will save the world.

Adapted to film (first of a trilogy), the movie stays true to its manga form both canonically and aesthetically.  In fact, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi gets every minute detail transferred to live action almost religiously.  After all, why fix what isn’t broken?  The casting, for example, was spot on.  Fans of the manga can spot their favorite characters as soon as their faces appear on screen.  I did not reread the manga before going to the film, yet I was able to remember the dialogues as they were spoken as well as recognize the scenes as they were flashed onto the screen.  Even the music that the protagonist Kenji Endo plays on his guitar seem to be exactly like how it’s supposed to be.

Built upon a large budget, for an Asian film, fans of the manga will instantly love the characters, buildings, scenes, inventions, and other aesthetics taken directly from the manga.  Although I too am blinded as a result of being one of those fans, I expect those unfamiliar with the series to discover its charm as well as be intrigued by the underlying plot as well.

Yet, film consists of much different storytelling elements than the frames in a comic.  And it is theses gaps of movement, sound, and pace that a comic artfully asks you to fill in but a movie must display that is done wrong.  While the screenplay stays true to its origins, it severely lacks in the areas that were not there to copy from the comic.  While the length (2.40 hrs) is understandable given the comic’s immensely detailed storyline, the pacing and transition between scenes is inexcusable.  Its reportoire of music is excellent, yet the way it chooses to execute them is incomprehensible.

Imagine yourself riding on a bus.  Conincidentally, you find many of your old friends on the same bus and exchange pleasurable conversation.  The seat is nice.  The atmosphere is warm.  But then, the bus finds itself in a traffic jam.  There aremany starts and stops, and at first you ignore it.  Eventually, you get a false hope that the bus is finally building pace, only to find the momentum cut short once again.  Finally, tension reaches a tipping point, and you can no longer look past the irritation despite the many other comforts the bus tries to throw at you.  Your overall experience is permanently tarnished.

For example, it is Naoki Urasawa’s style to often end chapters with a frame that often reveals a major plot point and introduces a feeling of intense suspense or revelation down your spine.  The way the film handles this is often by cutting short whatever music was playing that was supposed to build suspense, and showing the aforementioned plot point with what is supposed to be an eerie silence.  Yet, the visual seems too short, the music is cut-off abruptly without a notable transtion, and you seem forced into that “ah, the plot thickens” moment.

A lot of this flawed use of music and transition is found throughout the film and undermines its potential to be an enjoyable view, even as a cult (although a predominantly large cult) film.  In the end,  even the hardcore fans will ultimately grow tired of the poor execution, staying interested only to see what the next scene from their beloved belated coming-of-age story will look like in live form.  Others will look at their watches and wonder when it will ever end.

20th Century Boys the movie is an epic in disguise, holding promises of maturity, but ultimately just a nascent wonder of dreams and promises left behind.

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