Kenji’s life is not what he’d imagined it would be. As a child, he was determined to do great things—play in a rock band, live life on his terms, and, of course, save the world from evil. But as an adult, his life is ordinary. He tries to keep his family’s convenience store running and works to raise his sister’s baby daughter. But when a childhood friend commits suicide, Kenji’s safe world is knocked off its orbit. Not believing that his friend was suicidal, Kenji begins investigating and discovers a tie between that death and a mysterious new cult that has sprung up recently. The cult is run by a man known only as “Friend,” and he has plans for world domination—plans based directly on a story that Kenji himself wrote when he was a little boy. Now a mild-mannered shopkeeper must find within himself the strength to save the world from the forces of evil.
Urasawa’s thriller series is a coming-of-age tale for thirty- and forty-somethings. He slowly takes an ordinary man and forces him—and those around him—to dip into heretofore undiscovered depths of strength. Kenji and his friends are all the more amazing for how normal they are. Readers will instantly identify with them, especially as they themselves wonder what happened to the dreams they had as children. Some of the characters are satisfied with their adult lives, which makes their sacrifices all the more poignant. Others, such as Kenji, are not where they might like to be, but they feel the weight of responsibility to family and work so heavily that they cannot drag themselves out from under it. Their decision to fight against evil is liberating, but it is also terrifying, because they know that they will lose everything they have worked so hard for. Even the evil force is in many ways ordinary. Because no one knows who the “Friend” is and because his followers are made up of everyday people, the person who offers the greatest threat could be a next-door neighbor, a coworker, or even a family member.
It’s that overwhelming feeling of doom and suspicion that proves that Urasawa is a master of suspense. He builds the terror slowly, offering clues in one volume that do not pay off until later volumes. The story is always moving forward but is told by skipping back-and-forth in time. Bits from Kenji’s and the others’ pasts will be revisited when needed and Urasawa isn’t afraid to make a huge leap forward, skipping what seems like an essential part of the tale. Readers have to trust that he will give them that information later, and he does, but in his own unique way. This is not a tale where you should read the back of the next volume or even look too closely at the cover. The enjoyment is in allowing the twists and turns of the plot to catch you by surprise. At one point there will be a humorous line and then, a mere page or two later, a terrifying or sobering image will hit you right between the eyes.
Urasawa is known for his more realistic and slightly noir style of drawing. Kenji and his friends each have a distinct look, one that is easy to identify, even when they are drawn as children, but they all also look like real people. Even the evildoers are as benign in appearance as the good people are, appropriate for a story where evil is not always easily identifiable. The only downfall of this masterful work is that, at 22 volumes, readers will have to wait for their next fix once they have finished a volume. But the building of anticipation is only fitting for a work that so subtly and gracefully builds tension and suspense.
Reviewed by Snow Wildsmith on July 2, 2012
20th Century Boys, Vol. 1–7