When reading fiction in Japanese, I usually stick to novels over manga (comic books) for several reasons. One is that manga is typically very expensive, with a single episode typically costing 10 dollars or more. Depending on the difficulty level, I can read through one of those in a few hours to a few days. A novel, on the other hand, packs several hundred pages into the same price range, and can last me for weeks if not months.
Another reason is that I’m very picky about comic book art. Even though I generally find Japanese comic art more appealing that American/British, I still get bored quickly from manga which has generic character designs and simplistic backgrounds with little detail. A final reason is that many of the Japanese comic books have stories targeting a younger audience, and just can’t keep my interest for long.
Having said all that, there is one series I have managed to read to the end which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Japanese comics – whether they want to enjoy it in English or Japanese. It’s called “20th Century Boys” (２０世紀少年 in Japanese) and is written by Naoki Urasawa (浦沢直樹).
The basic elements of the story, on their own, are not that unique: a group of close friends, an enemy out to take over the world, a cult, and (of course) a giant robot or two. But one thing that makes this series unique and interesting is many references to classic rock (including the title which comes from T.Rex’s song of the same name), and some classic manga and anime. I’d go further to say the element of ‘nostalgia’ is one of the best central themes this work, which ironically keeps it very fresh and entertaining.
This sense of nostalgia is infused into the story via a series of plot threads, in the past, present, and the future. The story starts out as a basic whodunnit mystery but becomes more complex as we see scenes from the characters’ childhoods, including their hopes and dreams about the future, and some important things that relate back to the main story. Besides seeing Japan from a few decades ago, we also get to learn in depth about each character and how they each interrelate to one another. I feel that many Japanese works of fiction have an over-reliance on flashbacks, but this is one exception where I feel it is a critical element that really makes the story shine.
As things progress, mysteries unfold and then deepen again through a long chain of interrelated events. As one puzzle is solved, another one, even bigger in scale, fills its place. The pacing and timing is really superb, so that when you finish one book you’re itching to read the next. This is one reason I was able to finish this series – It was well worth every penny that I shelled out on it.
In terms of the art style, though the character designs themselves aren’t particularly unique, the backgrounds (especially at chapter transitions) can get very detailed to the point where I would sit for moments and stare at some of them, admiring their beauty. There are very few manga, or any comic books for that matter, that have this level of detail. If you know of any, please let me know.
I don’t want to give away much of the plot, but I’ll just say this is an epic masterpiece that really has so much going for it: great pacing, characters with depth, action, drama, suspense, nostalgia, and – last but not least – good ol’ rock and roll. For any fan of Japanese manga, this is a must-read.
There was even a trilogy of movies made of 20th Century Boys which did a great job of capturing the story (though without adding much), and took advantage of a great cast. Of course, I never advocate seeing the movie first if you plan on ever reading the original work.
This series originally ran in Japan from 1999-2006 in “Big Comic Spirits”, a weekly seinen magazine targeting older males 20-25, but wasn’t released in English until 2009-2012. If there is anyone reading this that happened to have read it already, I’d be curious to hear your feelings on it.