Wednesday, September 23, 2009

NY Anime Fest ’09: 20th Century Boys

Japan has had unnerving experiences with cult violence beginning in the early seventies when the United Red Army terror cell killed twelve members in a now notorious exercise in Maoist “self-criticism.” The Japanese public would also watch in horror as the Japanese Red Army committed the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre in Tel Aviv and the Aum cult perpetrated the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. As a result, there is arguably a deep apprehension of cult activity present in the Japanese collective conscience, which the 20th Century Boys franchise deftly tapped into, first as manga and now as a soon to be completed film trilogy.

The 2009 New York Anime Festival was scheduled to premiere the third installment of the live action film series, but production delays forced its cancellation—news which will have many fanboys crying into their chocolate milk and cheetos. That is unfortunate, because based on unresolved cliffhanger ending of part one (which duly plugs part two), back-to-back screenings is probably the most satisfying way to watch the series.

20th Century Boys (trailer here) bounces back and forth in time like a ping-pong ball, but our primary point-of-view character is Kenji Endô, a failed rocker who works in his family’s convenience store. He has only vague memories of his childhood, but his friends remember him quite well. In addition to trading comic books and girlie magazines, Endô and his classmates created The Book of Prophecy, an apocalyptic story about a malevolent cult leader plotting to destroy the world at the turn of the millennium. In fact, they recall Endô as their primary artist and writer. Years later, an ominous cult leader known as “Friend” has appropriated their mythology and even the symbol of their club for his own nefarious ends.

As “Friend” starts replicating the devastating biological attacks from Endô’s book, several of his old friends come to the unsettling conclusion that “Friend” was one of them. Suspicions logically fall on Sadakiyo, an awkward kid always seen in flashbacks wearing a Halloween mask or hopelessly out of focus. Faced with the growing political and social influence of “Friend’s” cult, Endô and his comrades are forced underground, as they desperately try to remember their past to save humanity’s future.

Before you can say “Holy back-story Batman,” Century One has introduced about a dozen characters. Still the major players are delineated reasonably well, with Toshiaki Karasawa projecting the right hound-dog moroseness as the apparently put-upon Endô and Takako Tokiwa bringing some welcome energy as Yukiji, the former tomboy of the group who now works as a customs officer.

Just as Hollywood has embraced comic books as source material, the Japanese film industry has had enormous success recently with manga-inspired films. Yet in contrast to American films like Iron Man, Century One does not have a lot of stuff going boom. Instead director Yukihiko Tsutsumi goes in a more noir direction, creating a moody atmosphere of mounting paranoia.

Part one leaves a host of questions unanswered and its prologue is just as befuddling at the end of the film as it is in the beginning. Yet Century One is creepily effective depicting the mystery of “Friend’s” roots in Endô’s perhaps not-so-innocent childhood. It leaves viewers intrigued by its secrets. Those attending NYAF will at least be able to see parts one and two on Friday (9/25), with L: Change the World, featuring the enigmatic sleuth from the Death Note series, replacing part three on Sunday (9/27).