Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
I haven’t read the 20th Century Boys manga by Naoki Urasawa that ran for 22 volumes between 1999 and 2006 or its two-volume 2007 continuation 21st Century Boys. This is also one of the rare times I’ve gone into a film or a trio of films where nearly the entire cast is a group of unknowns with the exception of Yusuke Watanabe, one of the screenwriters of the first 20th Century Boys film. Watanabe contributed to the screenplay of several live-action film versions of popular anime such as the two Attack on Titan films, Gatchaman, and the two Gantz films and is the sole screenwriter of the animated full-length feature Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods. This assessment of the 20th Century Boys trilogy will be based solely on the films.
20th Century Boys 1: The Beginning of the End
In 1969, a group of kids build a secret base made of grass to listen to the radio and read dirty magazines. A club is established with original members Kenji, Otcho, Yoshitsune, and Maruo welcoming newcomers Yukiji and Donkey. Otcho creates a club symbol that stands for the bond he shares with his friends. They soon all collaborate on making the Book of Prophecy; an illustrated story set in the near future where Kenji and his heroic friends would battle villains who were trying to destroy the world.
Nearly 30 years later, a strange cult led by the enigmatic madman known only as Friend materializes and he seems to be following the Book of Prophecy verbatim while utilizing the club’s symbol. Kenji, a washed-up former rock star who now helps run his family’s convenience store and babysits his niece Kanna, begins to unite his friends after news breaks of Donkey committing suicide. People disappear without a trace, the cult’s numbers continue to grow, and a deadly virus that leaves people completely bloodless causes a gargantuan panic amongst the public. San Francisco and London are soon overcome with the virus as a major Japanese airport succumbs to a series of massive explosions. Plans for a giant robot are uncovered as Friend and his followers reveal that the end of humanity will occur on New Year’s Eve 2000. Now more than ever, the world needs heroes and it’s up to Kenji to assemble them.
The first film is a little long, but is a mostly intriguing mystery where a group of adults attempt to piece together childhood memories from nearly three decades prior. I have a Chinese all-regions copy of all three films on one DVD and the English subtitles are so incredibly broken since they frequently leave out certain letters like capital G’s, J’s, K’s, and W’s, lower case q’s, and the number 3. The quality is pretty average and the subtitles leave you deciphering what’s going on until you figure out its funky system.
The Best and Worst Time Period
The mystery around Friend is fairly cool since he is connected to the childhood club, but always seemed to be lurking around in a monkey mask watching from afar. God is a shoplifting hobo who has apocalyptic visions while dishing out bowling metaphors relating to life lessons. Kenji and his mother work at a convenience store called King Mart and there’s a sequence where a group from the cult tries to steal Kanna. The sequence has this almost zombie quality to it as the group seems to be operating in unison. They have this hive mentality where the numbers game works in their favor; they’re way creepier than they have any right to be.
The brainwashing aspect of the film as well as its inclusion of rock music (the name of the film comes from the T-Rex song of the same name) gives the first 20th Century Boys film a parallel to Suicide Club; another Japanese film relating to suicide and music (even if its music is pop/boy band related). Saving the world with a guitar and its rock soundtrack also leaves you reminiscing about the FLCL anime, which is never a bad thing. The trailer for the second film is found after the end credits (they were originally released five months apart).
20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope
In 2015, 14 years after the events of Bloody New Year’s Eve, Kanna is now in her late teens and works as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Kenji has disappeared and is believed to be dead. Friend has framed Kenji as the terrorist behind the giant robot attack and the viral outbreak. The sequel focuses on a New Book of Prophecies and Friend still intends on bringing about the end of mankind while becoming a new god; only sixty million of his followers will be safe. Friend’s chief scientist has created a new virus that is deadlier than the one Kenji supposedly created for Bloody New Year’s Eve. Kanna’s mother and Kenji’s sister Kiriko was Yamane’s assistant and she is the only one able to create a vaccine. Friend is shot and killed by Yamane before the 2015 Expo, but comes back to life during his funeral seemingly cementing his status as a god.
Kanna befriends two transvestites who serve little purpose in the film. One of them named Britney is highly annoying and gets on your nerves. She expresses how she always wanted to be a dancer and is then shot in the head. A shotgun is carried throughout the film, but this wound is pea-sized in comparison to an actual shotgun blast. Friend has his own amusement park that is a front to brainwash those who are fully committed to Friend’s cause. In order to get in, you have to be able to bend a spoon with your supposed ESP. A highly competitive video game is played in front of a large audience and labeled as the Bonus Stage. Those who get the highest scores are chosen to have their brains rewired to be completely devoted to Friend.
The sequel is much harder to sit through than the first film. The mystery aspect is gone and is replaced with dawdling about where nothing really happens for the first 90-minutes. Human drama takes precedence in this film and the actors don’t have the acting chops to carry the film on their own. Friend’s brainwashed followers are the worst offenders as they overact during the scene where newcomer Sadakiyo Sada lights himself on fire. Sadakiyo isn’t around long enough to really care about his fate, but his pure outrage of confusing Gigantor for Gundam is hilarious.
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The acting is unbelievably stiff all around and the special effects take a turn for the worst. The CGI effects weren’t exactly groundbreaking in the first film, but at least the previous film was better about hiding their minimal effects budget. The CGI in the sequel is laughable and lame with the head of an old man pasted on top of the body of a young child being the biggest offender. Also, apparently in the future, kids act out in class by using multicolored laser string to rebelliously do the cat’s cradle while the teacher is lecturing. This is brilliantly referred to as, “laser string fingers.” For some reason, the way Kanna gets her ramen at restaurants sticks with you more than anything else in the film; probably because it reminds her of her uncle Kenji. “Al dente, extra onions, less pickles with extra pork.”
20th Century Boys 3: Redemption
In 2017, Friend now controls the entire world. He predicts that the world will officially end; by a virus delivered by aliens, on August 20th and that only those that believe in him will be saved. A song believed to be played by Kenji has overcome the radio and is a symbol of hope for the forthcoming apocalypse. With a guitar strapped to his back and a motorcycle as a means of transportation, an older-but-very-much-alive Kenji makes his way to Kanna in an effort to stop Friend for the last time.
All of these films, especially the two sequels, suffer from being too long. Seven and a half hours is far too long to spend in this world and with these characters because the acting isn’t strong enough, the writing isn’t good enough, and the special effects simply aren’t up to par. Looking at what DVD releases are available for the films, these could be the extended versions of the films but cutting certain sequences and proper editing can only make up for so much.
On the bright side, the special effects are likely at their best in this third film. It looks like the majority of the special effects budget was spent on the flying saucers that Friend has built to spread the virus since they’re the best looking CGI aspect in the entire trilogy. An updated version of the robot from the first film is created, but this robot has a round body impregnated with a nuclear bomb inside that walks on two legs and is faster in comparison to the Bloody New Year’s Eve bot. This robot looks okay at times, but its size is basically its downfall. Actors are consistently interacting with this robot, but it looks awful the majority of the time. The budget for the entire trilogy was around $60 million or $20 million per film, which isn’t much by Hollywood blockbuster standards (Hobbs and Shaw has a $200 million budget in comparison).
Take Back Our Symbol
The films also seem to deviate from the source material the most with this final film. I’m not entirely sure what those differences are, but it does suck that the main protagonist of this franchise is only around for like one entire film and a third of the final one while being completely absent from the second film. Kenji is like the Fonzie of the 20th Century Boys franchise; after presumed dead Kenji suddenly has this cool demeanor about him and lifts everyone’s spirits by being in the same room with him. The song he sings in the film, “Goo ta la la. Soo da la la,” and its acoustic version sounds so lame on paper but is actually incredibly catchy. There’s so much emphasis on waiting around for Kenji in this film though that by the time he gets there it doesn’t really feel like he does much of anything. The films jump around in time so infrequently in between films so maybe that contributes to Kenji being framed as a terrorist one minute and then being this symbolic savior because he sings a catchy song the next.
As if 20th Century Boys didn’t dabble in the anticlimactic enough already, the finale is less than satisfying because it tries to be more complex than it really is. Friend’s identity is a huge letdown, especially when it seemingly keeps changing on the fly. Even Kenji’s absence feels far-fetched; he lost his memory and lived as a hobo for 15 years. Once he realized who he was he ran away to the north until he couldn’t go any further and then cried for three days and three nights while rolling around in the snow like an idiot.
The 20th Century Boys films were released in North America and are available as separate releases on Amazon. There's also a trilogy set, but it's currently only available on eBay. I recommend the 3-disc version over the 1-disc version since squeezing three movies on one disc is likely to have terrible quality. The 20th Century Boys trilogy never seemed to live up to its potential. The original film is the best, but its issues were apparent from the start. Everything is milked and stretched out far beyond the point of investment. By the third film, you basically just want to see how it all ends. It took over a month to finish watching these films; mostly because of other commitments but also because dread set in at the thought of willingly returning to this lackluster effort filled with poor pacing.
I'm Becoming One with the Universe
There are some cool concepts in the films and they’re not a complete waste of time. The performances of Toshiaki Karasawa (Kenji) and Etsushi Toyokawa (Otcho) are solid and the Friend/Tomodachi character as a whole is intriguing, but it’s weird to think that a childhood grudge about not having any friends would blossom into the world’s biggest terrorist where everyone is forced to be his friend. The 20th Century Boys films are initially interesting based on a fascinating concept, but its execution isn’t as sleek and entertaining as you hope.
© 2019 Chris Sawin
Ced Yong from Asia on August 18, 2019:
Ooh, I remember this trilogy. Enjoyed the first movie tremendous because of the creepy parts. But then it got weirder and messier. Frankly, I thought the ending was an anti-climax too.