Naoki Urasawa is finally receiving increased attention through Viz's Signature Line. Urasawa is what can be recommended to fans when they realize that they've finally outgrown Naruto*, but can't quiet let go of the idea of a riveting good old-fashioned boy's adventure. 20th Century Boys, concurrently being released with Pluto, is just the kind of cerebral action thriller to appeal to the reader's changing tastes. I suppose that in Japan both manga serials serve as a fond revisit to the past for a certain generation that remembers consuming the works of Tezuka and his contemporaries, but I guess nostalgia for the popular culture of one's youth is a common condition in all post-industrial societies. And manga has been around long enough in the West that there should now be a generation of readers who will be more receptive to Urasawa's charms if they haven't given-up on the comics medium.
The first two volumes of the series were devoted to setting-up the story. Kenji Endō spent a typical childhood hanging out with his friends, building their secret hide-outs, reading comics, watching TV, exploring their neighborhood, and making-up stories about saving the world by fighting evil. But the now-adult Kenji begins to notice a vast conspiracy building around him. By the end of volume two, Kenji fully realizes that a nefarious cult is enacting the idle fantasies for world domination that he and his boyhood friends once dreamed-up to pass the time many years ago. And one of his childhood acquaintances may be the leader of this fanatical cult simply known as "Our Friend".
Volume 3 is the first turning-point of the series - the hero hearing what someone else referred to as the call to adventure. The person who forces Kenji to confront this uncomfortable truth is almost a supernatural presence: A homeless old man whose ability to foresee the future has earned him the name Kamisama (God):
Kenji's initial reaction is to panic:
Followed by an all-night electric guitar session to steady his resolve:
Kenji's actions are built on character development of the previous volumes. Virtually all of his friends that he still maintains contact with have grown-up and now live fairly normal lives. Kenji himself barely remembers his early childhood and has taken over the family business of running a liquor store, which he is in the process of turning into a convenience store. He also acts as a parent to his missing sister's baby daughter Kanna. In short he lives an average, unassuming life. But of all his circle of friends, he still retains the highest reserves of youthful idealism. At one point he became a rebellious rock guitarist. And while he's given-up on his dreams of a successful musical career, it's his love for rock music that he returns to when he makes his choice to answer the call.
"Our Friend", on the other hand, behaves like a twisted version of Kenji's idealism. For as yet unknown reasons he (or she) refuses to let go of those infantile good vs. evil fantasies. He instead chooses to turn them into literal reality. To Kenji's (and the reader's) complete incredulity, he has somehow managed to raise a secret army of totally faithful followers whose membership reaches into the Japanese government. His organization has apparently succeeded in building such futuristic devices such as laser guns and giant robots. The incongruity between the mundane and the fantastic defines much of the overall mood of the volume: When Kenji directly confronts the organization, his look of utter disbelief at their crazy schemes is akin to the reaction of a muggle who has just stumbled into the Ministry of Magic.
Urasawa has managed to fashion his pet themes of childhood, memory, and identity into a sly critique of pop culture nostalgia. He both acknowledges its corrosive power and its capacity to inspire while simultaneously managing to flatter his more mature audience: Kenji is a gawky middle-aged man who possesses as much common sense as anyone, and he becomes increasingly terrified as the story progresses. Nonetheless evil must be vanquished and the world must be saved. So he plays his guitar solo, makes awkward attempts to recruit potential allies, and then sets out into the darkness. Cue the music.
While originally serialized like most commercial manga, 20th Century Boys is constructed as a single complex narrative that constantly transitions back and forth between several time periods. And this is a dialogue-heavy story. But Urasawa's drawings always manage to illustrate a large and varied cast of characters, even managing to distinguish, yet portray as similar, the same character from different time periods. His pacing is compulsive enough that it doesn't get bogged down by the dialogue. In fact it makes for a very compelling page turner.
At the end of the volume, a mysterious Yojimbo-like character named Shogun is introduced. As of yet he has no connection to the events happening to Kenji, but as acknowledgment of the serialized nature of manga and as a promise of future story developments, the character makes a humorous meta reference in the very last panel.
*Naruto being a stand-in for any shonen adventure. I could have just as easily mentioned Bleach.