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Friday, Feb. 6, 2009

'20-seiki Shonen Dai-2-sho: Saigo no Kibo'

A geek comes marching out of the closet

Movies based on popular long-running manga commonly cram in too much, from story lines to characters. This confuses nonfans, while often failing to satisfy fans, who complain about omissions — though the original comic may have run for thousands of pages in dozens of volumes.

20-seiki Shonen Dai-2-sho: Saigo no Kibo Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Power mad: Etsushi Toyokawa (foreground) and Airi Taira in "20-seiki Shonen Dai-2-sho: Saigo no Kibo." © 1999, 2006. NAOKI URASAW STUDIO NUTS/SHOGAKUKAN © 2009 EIGA "20-SEIKI SHONEN" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi
Running time: 139 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Feb. 7, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

When Nippon Television Network and its partners adapted Naoki Urasawa's best-selling — and lengthy — manga "20- seiki Shonen" ("20th Century Boys") to the screen, they dealt with this difficulty by making a trilogy of films — the Japan equivalent of "Lord of the Rings."

The original story, partly inspired by the Stephen King coming-of-age fictions "Stand By Me" and "It," is forbiddingly complex, with dozens of characters and plot lines. Nonetheless, director Yukihiko Tsutsumi has managed to put most of them on film. The first installment, released last August, earned a whopping ¥3.85 billion, and the producers, who sank ¥6 billion into the entire project, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The hero of the first film is Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa), who in 1997 is a failed rock musician reduced to running a convenience store while caring for Kanna, the baby daughter of his wayward older sister. He and his gang of childhood pals reunite at a funeral of one of their number who died in mysterious circumstances, which they decide to investigate.

Their search leads them to a creepy cult whose masked leader, known only as "Tomodachi" ("Friend"), has an insane plan for realizing the "prophecies" of worldwide mayhem that Kenji and the others wrote as kids, as a sort of game. In trying to stop him, they rediscover a sense of purpose they thought had long gone missing, but Tomodachi ultimately proves to be too great of an adversary.

Tsutsumi filmed the story with his usual brisk pace and, in the childhood sections, a surprising naturalism, perhaps influenced by the Rob Reiner classic "Stand By Me." But the cartoonish tone of the climatic battle, set at the turn of the millennium, lessened the impact.

In the second film, which starts in 2015, the survivors of Kenji's gang either have gone underground or are rotting in prison. Tomodachi, having thwarted the "terrorists" (i.e. Kenji and his allies), has become Japan's absolute ruler, while Kanna (Airi Taira) has been raised by Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa), the gang's only female member, since Kenji went missing.

Now a fiery-eyed teenager, Kanna rejects the lies about her uncle and his pals in her state-approved high-school textbook and starts to learn the truth about Tomodachi from an unusual source — a nervous "new half" (transsexual) woman. Kanna's attitude and activities bring her to the attention of the police, including a sympathetic young detective (Naohito Fujiki), who protects her from his colleagues.

The story takes a fantastic turn when Kanna and a scatter-brained classmate (Haruka Kinami) go to an amusement park-cum-indoctrination-center called Tomodachi Land and, after advancing to the "bonus stage" of a scary virtual-reality game, find themselves transported back to 1971 and the elementary school of Kenji and his pals. It is the classmate, however, who reels in horror and disgust when she is the first to discover Tomodachi's real identity, which he hides with an ever-present mask.

We do not see what she sees — Tomodachi's true identity will remain a secret until part three — but we are treated to more big-scale thrills and surprises than in the first film, which concentrated more on stage setting and character development. The dystopian premise, that Japan has been taken over by an Aum-Shinrikyo-like cult, may seem dated, but the atmosphere of crisis and dread, with the heroes' worst-case scenarios becoming horrifyingly realized, feels contemporary enough.

As Kanna, Airi Taira is a shade too old to be playing a high schooler (she was born in 1984) but she brings to the role a righteous fire and urgency that holds the attention and keeps the film from floating off into Manga Land.

Still, the trilogy is a product of otaku bunka — Japan's "geek culture" that revels in detailed fantasy worlds and despises ordinary mortals who haven't mastered their complexities. Tsutsumi, no geek himself, does his darndest to clarify things, but if you thought "Lord of the Rings" a hard-to-follow slog, "20-seiki Shonen" will probably also be baffling — at least until part three, when all will presumably be revealed.

I want to see it, if only to learn who's behind that silly mask, the identity of Kanna's dad, the fate of Kenji — and much else besides. Geek, c'est moi.

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