The last volume of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys I read was volume 22. The series only lasts two more volumes – 21st Century Boys Volume One and Two. These articles cover my attempted reread of the series from the beginning to the end. This article covers volume one.
Looking back the first volume of 20th Century Boys feels more like an introduction than it did the first time around. What seemed like a fast beginning to a complex story seems a little slower this time. Despite the number of characters, jumps in time, plot-threads, and mysteries that this volume introduces it actually feels like a happier time for the characters. Kenji jokes with his friends and family. The sense of urgency that will appear before long is completely absent here.
Naoki Urasawa introduces a large cast of characters in this volume including:
Kenji – Kenji is the main character and is largely depressed by his completely average life as a convenience store owner. He wistfully remembers his younger years while accepting that they are behind him. He seems good natured and fairly happy and lighthearted, but is dead serious when it comes to Kanna, the niece his sister disappeared and left him with, and when it comes to his friends, which make his current and future actions make sense. As a child Kenji loved science fiction and manga and wanted to save the world.
Maruo – Maruo is Kenji’s overweight best friend. Like all overweight best friends he has a comical love of food. He’s also gentle and good natured, and more than a little silly.
Keroyon – He played the villain in Kenji’s childhood games. He was the leader of the Kingdom of Frogdom, so christened because of his frog-like appearance. He’s more comfortable in his role as a grown up than Kenji, or even Maruo.
Donkey – Donkey was another childhood friend if Kenji’s. he came from a poor family and got picked on a lot. Kenji’s group only accepted him after he saved their lives. He was a fast runner and once had some altercation with a ghost in a school. He leaped from the school window to escape whatever it was he saw. Kenji and co. attend his funeral in this volume, it appears that Donkey has committed suicide. Shortly after the wake a letter, sent from Donkey before his death, arrives at Kenji’s house. He asks if Kenji recollects a specific symbol.
Kanna – Kenji’s sisters daughter. She’s just an infant.
Masao – A fervoured devote of the Friend’s cult. He’s skinny and wears glasses. Donkey, shortly before killing himself, mentioned that Masao had got into some kind of trouble with a “friend.” In this volume he serves as the Friend’s Assassin, killing a competing cult leader with a kitchen knife.
Mon-Chan – Dead serious, until he gets drunk and starts obsessing over a childhood memory.
Other eventually important characters include the Twins, Otcho, Detective Cho-San, Yukiji, Manjome and the rest of Kenji’s childhood friends.
This volume largely revolves around two events- the disappearance of a family and Donkey’s suicide. The same mysterious symbol appears linked to both events, as does the student Masao. It turns out Masoa is a devote of some strange cult. The cult is led by a mysterious man who only goes by the name The Friend. The Friend has adopted a symbol that Otcho created in his childhood. This symbol was meant to represent their clubhouse, and now someone, presumably from their childhood, has adopted it.
Naoki Urasawa’s typically cool and composed style is strongly at play already in this volume. Panels stay straight and camera angles stay average. The most notable exception being a full page spread where Masao picks up a kitchen knife. This spread is dramatically lit, fractionally more realistic, and shot from a worm’s eyes view. There are a few of Urasawa’s interesting sound effects, but generally this volume is pretty restrained. He’s clearly making sure that, as events continue, there’s some contrast. He clearly wants to make sure they’re some happy moments to reflect upon later on.
Now plot threads are hardly the be-all and end-all of any work’s quality. Sometimes they reflect a larger inadequacy in the level of writing, but that is hardly the case with Naoki Urasawa. The only reason I’m bothering to include this section in this series of articles at all is that I think it will prove interesting. It’s also the easiest way to keep track of the plot. Largely I expect to be impressed by how early Urasawa seeds his ideas. Time shall tell.
Humanity’s saviors – a flash forward early on shows a group of mysterious heroes at a press conference.
Mysterious girl – we see a girl awake in her bed. The may or may not be the same time as the aforementioned press conference.
“It can’t be that again” – this girl sees glowing eyes and a clouded shape loudly moving through the distance. Notice “again.”
Mysterious plague – there’s a plague in Africa that causes people to bleed to death. Later on in the volume someone is found in Japan with similar symptoms. It seems like it might have been ordered by the Friend.
Kenji’s sister - she left him with her baby, but why?
Kanna – There’s a beat in this volume that seems important, Kanna manages to guess which hand a woman is holding something in 100% of the time. A big deal is made of this.
Mysterious symbol – who from Kenji’s childhood has adopted their club-house symbol for their own means?
Where’s Otcho – No one knows. He’s the one who first came up with the symbol.
Ochanomizu – a scientist found dead with all the blood outside his body.
Donkey and the Shikishimas – they were both involved with Masoa. One committed suicide the other disappeared.
The ghost – What was it Donkey saw in the science room when they were kids?
The face – the friend has ordered the construction of a giant metal face. What’s up with that?
The Friend – who is he!? The series’ central question. See “mysterious symbol.”
Right now all we know about the Friend is this: he either was, or knew someone who was, a childhood friend of Kenji’s. The assumption is that he no one we’ve met who meets the description is the Friend, but so far there is no concrete proof of this.