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DVD package


20th Century Boys
cast: Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Teruyuki Kagawa, and Hidehiko Ishizuka

director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

142 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
4Digital Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I originally began this review with a long paragraph about the lack of cultural exchange between Japan and the west, and how this lack of communication has resulted in this film slipping out on DVD despite being one of the most expensive films ever produced by the Japanese film industry. However, to be honest with you, I am not sure that this is particularly fair to the film. Yes, 20th Century Boys (aka: 20-seiki shônen: Honkaku kagaku bôken eiga) is a hugely expensive film. Yes, it is based upon a hugely successful series of award-winning manga, but at the end of the day it is only a genre film. And therein lies the problem...

Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) is something of a loser. Forced to give up a career as a musician in order to help look after his sister's daughter, he is now the manager of a poorly-performing convenience store. Down on his luck, he agrees to attend a class reunion and starts reminiscing with his old gang of friends. Before long, someone mentions that a religious cult appears to be using the gang's old logo as a symbol. Concerned, the group start to investigate and discover that the religious cult is set upon taking over the world using as a template a story written by the members of the gang. As the gang are the only people to know about the original story, they are the only ones who can do something to stop the cult.

20th Century Boys strikes an interesting tone. Its plot is similar to that of Stephen King's It (1986), but the science fictional subject matter is wrapped in the same kind of Sundance-meets-anime loser-centric whimsy as films such as Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers!, Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers, and Kamikaze Girls. Initially, this aesthetic works quite nicely as the film's broadly drawn characters bounce effectively off of each other both as kids and as recognisable but down-trodden adults. Sadly, this initial charm dissipates once the mystery plot slides into place as the film effectively grinds to a halt.

In narrative terms, 20th Century Boys is all about the movement between a world that is seemingly normal and one that is actually fantastical. The film's early scenes (as well as the flashbacks) are whimsical but also drearily mundane in their focus. We see people struggling with work. We see kids dealing with bullies. We see adults not particularly happy with their lot in life. But then the world changes´┐Ż The idea that 'monsters/ demons/ vampires/ aliens secretly exist' is one of the oldest narrative tricks in the book. It is one that is repeated all across the genre spectrum from fantasy to SF to horror. It is also one that audiences will be familiar with because they have seen it in hundreds of other films, TV series, books and comics. However, despite the near-universality of this narrative trick, the film treats it as though it is some kind of mad experimental cinematic technique that needs careful explanation and justification as the characters spend over an hour wandering around refusing to accept what audiences will have accepted the second they stepped into the cinema, namely that this is a work of genre.

The problem is that rather than challenging genre conventions or possessing any kind of psychological or human element, 20th Century Boys' existential crisis comes across as self-indulgent, and symptomatic of a willingness to cast aside the necessities of narrative cinema in favour of slavish acts of homage to source material from another medium. The need to recreate all of the scenes in the comic and give all of the under-written characters as much screen time as possible effectively destroys the film's pacing and deprives the narrative of any sense of tension or urgency. This results in a film that is terrifyingly dull.

What is most depressing about all of this is the fact that beneath the fan-service there is a good idea trying to get out. The whimsical comedy dramas that clearly inspired 20th Century Boys are frequently concerned with a talent-less person trying to convince the world around them that they are exceptional. In the case of Funuke this was a young woman trying to present herself as an actress, in the case of Kamikaze Girls it is a young woman dressing like an Edwardian gentlewoman. These types of films have a certain thematic unity with the subject matter of 20th Century Boys as the manga is about normal people having a special position thrust upon them not because they are special or because they have great potential, but because they happened to grown up in the same area as a lonely little boy who grew up to be a megalomaniacal despot. Had the film cut down the manga's vast cast of characters and stuck to being 80 minutes long then it would not only have been a sleek and funny genre film, it would also have been genuinely innovative. Sadly, at over 140 minutes, the film is bloated, self-indulgent and boring.

It also has some of the worst DVD extras I have ever seen. Clearly, given the film's commercial prominence in Japan, the boat has been pushed out on extras and so the film comes with two DVDs and a booklet. I did not get a chance to see the booklet but the second DVD contains nothing but adverts, trailers and footage from PR stunts in Japan (where people brag about how expensive the PR stunt was) and France (where one of the film's main actress appears wearing a rather incongruous kimono). Given the mismatch between the cultural significance of the series on different side of the Pacific and the fact that the film is made with fan-service in mind it would have been nice to see a documentary about the manga itself or its creator but, no, we just get adverts.

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