It took me half a year to properly pick this up.
It was the first manga by Naoki Urasawa that I read, so I wasn’t exactly prepared for the slow start and ended up dropping it multiple times. I mean, even the basic premise that you can find on Wikipedia ends up giving the manga a very bland impression (as proven by one of my fellow Thwip! members). But when I finally did get past the first 2 volumes or so and started getting into it properly, I couldn’t help but fall in love with it.
The main character, Kenji, is an every-man who dreamt of success and glory in rock music, but ended up running a convenience store with his mother in the late 90s. And for some reason, Kenji’s older sister has disappeared, leaving her newborn daughter with Kenji. The manga kicks off with Kenji learning of a dangerous cult that has suddenly showed up, led by a mysterious masked man who is only known as “Friend”. And this cult is somehow related to a book of prophecy that Kenji and his friends made up when they were kids back in 1969, as the symbol of the cult is eerily identical to the symbol Kenji came up with as a child. As more and more eerie connections keep showing up between this cult and Kenji and his friends’ plans and ideas as a kid, Kenji realizes that this is far more than simple coincidence and starts investigating “Friend” with the help of his old friends.
The series flashes back and forth between 1969 and the late 90s, with each chapter giving us a bit more insight into the young lives of Kenji and all his other supporting cast. It starts of as a mystery manga, but quickly escalates to an emotionally gripping tale of heroism, redemption, and astounding comradery. Beautifully drawn characters and landscapes, mixed with masterful writing, makes this manga able to actually evoke proper emotion into any reader, regardless of their preferred genre. Every character in it is so well-crafted to either be someone you love, or someone you are legitimately terrified of.
And the sweet cherry on top is the references to classic rock, which should already be obvious given that the title of the manga is that of a T.Rex song. The music is so important to this manga that Urasawa himself composed, wrote and performed original song(s) for the series, which I highly recommend to be listened to while one is reading 20th Century Boys. Even now, ages after I’ve read the manga, listening to Bob Lennon (Kenji’s song) makes me smile and nearly tear-up at the same time.
At its heart, 20th Century Boys is a story about people. Urasawa has this amazing ability to create the most human humans that I have ever seen in fiction. He will make you love even the bloody henchmen under “Friend” at a point. What makes 20th Century Boys (or anything else by Urasawa, to be honest), is how real the characters are. Urasawa manages to give every character proper depth and a sense of realism. None of the characters, even the minor ones, ever feel two-dimensional or flat. (But I guess it can be argued that the main character is basically a jackass with a guitar who has a hero complex, and that that there is no sense of realism in that. To anyone who would argue that, I say, “go read yer magic pink haired fire eating nutjob starring mangas, m8”.)
20th Century Boys would probably my favorite manga of all time had Urasawa not choked at the ending for some reason. Urasawa even took more time to work on the ending by giving 20th Century Boys a cliffhanger ending and then announcing the release of a sequel mini-series that would be a proper ending to the entire thing. But even then, it felt out-of-tune with the rest of the series and disappointing. Now, this does not mean that the ending was utter garbage. It’s just that the standard Urasawa had set for himself throughout the entire series ended up being something he couldn’t live up to for the ending. This is very unfortunate, because the manga just keeps going up and up until the ending of 20th Century Boys, after which we get 21st Century Boys, which was just plain and banal when compared to what preceded it.
All in all, even with the disappointing ending, 20th Century Boys is still an amazing read and we at Thwip! highly recommend it to anyone interested in manga, mystery, apocalyptic fiction, or just great fiction in general.