A manga saga gets a true epic treatment on the big screen, but is it worthy of fans’ expectations or is it just one more example of a mediocre live-action manga adaptation…?

To reduce these two ambitious films based on Naoki Urasawa’s highly regarded manga to that single question is somewhat simple-minded, I realize. And especially so if I add that my answer to it lies somewhere between the two options provided above. After all, what exactly are those expectations anyway? And what about those who aren’t fans of the manga, but may be looking for, I don’t know, an emotionally involving science-fiction-flavored conspiracy thriller?

That’s in fact where the problems start with the 20th Century Boys film franchise: fulfilling the basic requirements of fantastic cinema—wonder, excitement—for those who are not already members of its preexisting fan base. Uneasily poised between realism (albeit in a mystery-thriller vein) and fantasy, the resulting films do not represent a happy middle ground. Instead of being invigorating cross-pollinizations of multiple genes, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s films (released in ‘08 and early ‘09 respectively) are uneven mishmoshes that never fully deliver the goods in any one department. It’s a shame, really, and I applaud what Tsutsumi and the 3-4 different screenwriters have tried to do here, but in the end, well, the films feel like they’ve been patchworked together by 3-4 different screenwriters.

To be sure, there are plenty of arresting images in the 280-minute combined runtime of the two films, solid work by several engaging performers, and of course the fascinating neo-millenarian themes of the manga. Still, the overall experience one is left with is self-seriousness to the point of dour solemnity. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, 20th Century Boys posits a group of childhood friends in 1969 creating a pulpy “Book of Prophecies” whose fun-until-someone-gets-hurt episodes start to come true in eerie fashion as the years go by. As such, it’s a great text about the double-edged fear/desire blade of wish fulfillment: what would happen if you really were called upon to be the hero, the only one who could stop a planetary evil, a role you might have dreamed about as a kid? Would you be worthy of the task?

The trouble here is that Tsutsumi and his team tell the film version of 20th Century Boys with such a commitment to the straightforward and unartful that the films themselves feel, emotionally and creatively, like they were authored by those same young urchins nestled in their clubhouse. There are explosions, assassinations, dystopian riffs, angry mobs, giant robots, and so on, but none of it is delivered with half as much fun as this descriptive list would lead one to believe. It’s as if the filmmakers saw their main (or only) job as the faithful pouring of the manga into the templates of film without much consideration of the unique pleasures that film alone can provide.

As a result, you sense that Tsutsumi isn’t paying much attention to the shifts in tonality that manga, for some reason, is particularly adept at pulling off.
Ever have the experience of reading a manga and laughing out loud on one spread, being creeped out on the next, and then feeling like you're about to cry on the following one? In film that’s much harder to pull off because, in part, the cut isn’t nearly as cleanly divisive as the page-flip. So I submit that that’s another reason why there’s apt to be a big gap in enjoyment level here between those who are Urasawa’s fans and those who aren’t: it’s not just that the former are more familiar with the content per se, but also with these tonal shifts, and so won’t be thrown by them as much. That means the films will probably feel less disjointed, less anything-goes, too. And of course this speaks to the same dichotomy between fan and non-fan responses that cropped up earlier this year regarding the Watchmen movie.

For the non-fan, the fact that the emperor is naked, or at least semi-nude, is going to be a lot more obvious. Indeed, for movies that are reportedly the most expensive ever made in Japan, they’re shockingly underproduced in spots. Many of the interior scenes are decorated, lit, and shot in a blasé TV-ish mode, as if all the real money had been spent on massive crowd scenes, CGI, and cast salaries. The effect, then, is a little like watching a lavish mini-series—there’s certainly care to be noticed all over the place, but the overall product simply isn’t playing the game on a big league level. The editing and shot compositions are routinely predictable, the acting is consistently inconsistent (Haruka Kinami’s mugging in the second film is particularly annoying), and a couple of the important action scenes are clumsily staged, popping you out of the movie. For the record, these include a scene in the first movie in which the protagonist is able to fight through a mob to retrieve a baby it's taken from him, and a scene in the second set in a church in which a good cop with a handgun has the drop on a bad cop with a shotgun but doesn’t shoot him so that the “suspense” can be drawn out a bit more.

Not to say that everything about these films is awkward or off-putting. Many of the flashbacks sequences of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, shot in sepia-like golds and coppers, are so good that I found myself feeling nostalgic for a time and place of which I have no experience. And the energy level of The Last Hope (an inaccurate title, by the way) is a marked improvement over the first picture, a fact due largely to the inclusion of the youthful Airi Taira (as the older version of the baby character in part one). But how many viewers will feel it’s worthwhile wading through all the talkiness and contrived camera angles to reach the occasional bright spot? I guess quite a few since I myself, despite all I’ve said here, am curious about the third installment, which releases in Japan later this summer.  

And maybe that says something about our cultural anxiety these days: when end-of-the-world scenarios become comforting, almost harmless, shtick, we’re probably in a lot of trouble.