The end of the millennium is at hand and someone is trying to end the world using a story cobbled together by children in the late 60's.
What They Say
It all begins in 1969 when a young boy named Kenji and his friends write "The Book of Prophecy." In their book, they write about a future where they fight against an evil organization trying to take over the world and bring about Doomsday.
Years later in 1997, a mysterious cult led by a man only known as "Friend" has emerged and gained strong influence over society. A series of catastrophic events begin to occur, mirroring the prophecies made up by the young Kenji. The greatest fear is that the climax of The Book of Prophecy will become a reality: on December 31st, 2000, a terrifying giant virus-spreading robot will attack the entire city of Tokyo, leading to the end of mankind.
The only people who know about The Book are Kenji and his childhood friends. Who is Friend? Will Kenji and his friends be able to stop Friend, save mankind, and live to see the 21st Century?
Viz Pictures' releases tend to be pretty good in what they offer for language tracks, though they haven't done much in the way of English language versions. 20th Century Boys is no different as we only get the Japanese language mix but we do get both the 5.1 and stereo mixes, so it'll work best with whatever setup you have. Listening to the 5.1 mix, encoded at 448kbps, the film doesn't really utilize the various channels all that much, especially when it comes to the rear speakers. The film has a good forward soundstage mix with its dialogue but there isn't a huge amount of depth or placement to it, but it's laid out well and the track comes across in a clean manner. Outside of some music cues and a few ambient effects here and there, it's not terribly distinct but it works to keep the flow of the movie working without the sound effects overpowering it, or the music for that matter.
Originally in theaters in August of 2008, the transfer for this film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The feature has a very good clean look to it, but still retains the feel of film with some mild grain. There's a good sense of detail throughout much of it but there are some scenes where it's obscured and indistinct when it comes to the shadows. The source itself is unaltered from the original with the Japanese logo intact and no hard subtitles found when it comes to signs that are translated when appropriate. This is a pretty good looking release that holds its own quite well.
20th Century Boys has an appealing cover to it when you really look at it as some of the initial details are lost on first glance. There's a good split to be had here with the bottom featuring a look at most of the main characters of the film looking towards the sky while behind them there's a thin curve strip of cityscape material which almost looks like trees. The top half is made up of fog and a symbol from the feature but it's not quickly apparent that it's a mask being worn by someone set against the clouds. I like the look of the cover as it does offer a good cast shot as well as the mystery along the top. The back cover is pretty traditional with a blurb about the films origins and another series of headshots that look more serious. The summary for the feature is pretty decent though it gives away a little too much depending on how much you want to know. The rest is filled with a lot of small production text and the technical information that's far clearer and better laid out than anything under the Viz Media label. Add in a few additional shots from the film and you've got a decent cover overall. While there's no reverse cover, there is an insert with the release that's really nice to have. One side talks about the origins of the manga and its overall worldwide popularity while the other side looks at three of the actors and the director with their origins and what they've been known for.
The menu design for the film is fairly standard for a lot of releases these days as it takes the actor shots from the front cover and uses that zoomed in as its primary piece. The logo stands out well as does the navigation as they use the same kind of font and colors as are used on the front cover. The navigation is simple and easy to navigate though there are some interstitial animations mixed into it when it shifts from menu to menu. Everything does load quickly once that piece is done though and I was glad to see that it defaults to the 5.1 mix with full subtitles instead of the lower grade audio as has been done on some earlier releases.
The only extras included with this release are a couple of the original Japanese trailers and a couple of the English release trailers.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga by Naoku Urasawa which one a few awards early on in its run, 20th Century Boys is a trilogy of movies that tells the tale of the end of the world. This first movie does a huge amount of the setup and manages to have the right kind of cliffhanger ending to make you feel like you got a good movie here but with a definite plan for the future. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film moves across different time periods to tell its tale of a world at the brink and unaware of it until it's too late.
20th Century Boys revolves around a group of men and women near the age of forty who are slowly reconnecting. Focusing mostly on Kenji, the ties that bind are that they all went to elementary school together and reconnect at a reunion for the class of 1967 in the year 1997. It's at this reunion that some whispers start coming out about various classmates and where they are, but also that some of them have died. Kenji's lived a fairly normal and bland life, having failed at being a good rock musician and even failing at the family liquor store business which he converted to a convenience store. Even worse for Kenji is that since it's a family business, he works with his mother who dislikes what's happened to the store. And what piles on even more is that Kenji's been left with his sisters little girl, who she gave to him not long after she was born before she disappeared. With the father unknown, Kenji had no other choice but to help take care of it.
As Kenji lives his life, the world is changing around him though people haven't quite caught on yet. A disease that appeared first in Africa has made its landing in America by infecting San Francisco. The disease is a brutal one that causes a body to expunge all its blood and leaving a husk of a body. As this plays out there and eventually in London, a new cult is making serious waves in Japan led by a man known only as Friend. The cult is one that takes in people easily and turns them to Friend's side. At the reunion, several people talk about friends and colleagues who have been sucked in by this cult and its very domineering aspects. Over the course of the first film, the pervasiveness of the cult is felt as its members are in nearly every level of society, allowing them to do as they please up through and including becoming their own political party.
Kenji's ties to these different things is the foundation of the film and the series in general. Back in 1967, suffering from abuse by some twins at school, Kenji and several friends made their own secret base in an abandoned lot where they could play and have fun without worry. It was here that with others they built a science fiction story about the end of the world. The collaborative effort is shown as they draw up the story in their Book of Prophecy with various cities that are attacked with bioweapons, airports that are destroyed and how everything will come to an end by an unnamed evil organization at the turn of the century. Though the Book was lost years and years ago, someone discovered it or knew of it from back then and they're now bringing that story to life.
Over the course of the film, Kenji slowly makes various discoveries that lead him to realizing that the story he helped write as a kid is becoming real. The symbol used by Friend is one that they created back in 1967 and there's a push among some of them to try and reclaim it for their own again, which becomes more important as the turn of the century gets closer. Kenji's role of a passive observer just trying to get through his days to becoming the most wanted man in Japan is fun to watch as he's encouraged by his former classmates but also because he is one of the few people that understands the gravity of the situation. There's also a really good subplot that plays out with his niece and where she came from that adds a bit more impact to the entire situation.
20th Century Boys plays it big when it comes to the cast and the scope of what's going on, something you don't often see in a lot of Japanese films. The end of the world is a good concept to work with but tying it back to a story originally created by kids some thirty years earlier gives it a very different feeling. As does having the principle cast of characters being as old as they are. The runtime of the film also allows it to really take its time to explore who some of these characters are and to build up the overall mythology of the series by showing us Friend at different stages as his plot comes to fruition. There are some decidedly campy moments at time, particularly the big climax, but I can't help but to feel that it should be this way because of the origins of the Book of Prophecy
I wasn't sure what to expect with this film going into it, but with the strength of Naoki Urasawa behind it I was more than ready to give it plenty of time to reveal itself. And it is a movie that does need time to explore what it's about. But once it does all start to click, it's very hard to turn away from it and the end of the first feature has you wanting the second one in hand right away. The story of Friend and its planned conquest of the world uses amusing origins and a surprising kind of faithfulness to it that you wouldn't expect, but it all works. With good sets, interesting characters and a story that definitely appeals, 20th Century Boys is a solid first entry in the series that has you wanting to delve into the manga while also eagerly awaiting the second feature when you finish here. And with this one likely only scratching the surface, I can't wait to discover what secrets will be revealed in the next.
Japanese 5.1 Language, Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Original and US Trailers
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70" LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.