Review: 20th Century Boys Movie Trilogy

Japan’s wide-ranging stable of comics, known as manga, are often adapted into other mediums. Many will become anime, some will become TV shows, and a few will become movies. Given the long story arcs of some manga, some film adaptations span multiple releases. However, multiple releases, particularly trilogies, are hard to handle.

First, they are typically released over the span of a couple of years and thus must hold the audience’s interest for that period and re-immerse them into plot even though months have passed since they saw the last entry.

Second, they must be complete films in themselves, i.e. they must have a complete three-act structure. The first film cannot be an introduction alone without any climax, nor can the middle simply connect the other two. Typically, while most trilogies nail the first film, they struggle in the follow-ups:

  • Star Wars – Classic first and second parts, but Return of the Jedi is clearly the weakest film of the three original movies (because of the Ewoks!).
  • The Matrix - The first film was an instant classic, but unable to recapture the right balance of action, plot and style, and with the story becoming over-complex, the sequels disappointed everyone.
  • Lord of the Rings – Unlike the others, this trilogy came from strong source material, but for me. Fellowship of the Ring was excellent, but The Two Towers and Return of the King seemed to lack the completeness as individual films that the first so successfully managed.
  • Back to the Future – A great series of films using cliff-hangers to keep the audience wanting more, but the third film felt much weaker, to me, than the rest (although I believe that this might be the best trilogy listed here).20th Century Boys is one such example.

Finally, they must deal with the accumulating plotlines in a manner that satisfy an audience forced to wait months for a conclusion. The Matrix, for example, ended up so complicated that it became simply preposterous.

20th Century Boys20th Century Boys grappled with these problems, but ultimately failed to rein them in. The first film was excellent. The plot escalated nicely and by the end, the viewer was itching for more. However, with each film, the focus changed. Set in the future, the second film’s lead character is the niece of the protagonist of the first film. The third film has no clear stand out characters, and ultimately lost my interest as a result.

The greatest thing about 20th Century Boys was its unravelling plot. Spanning 50 years or so, we are constantly looking back to the past for answers in the present. The plot twists are excellent and surprising right up until the end. Yet, even after the film’s big reveal, the identity of the evil masked mastermind, Tomodachi, remains unclear. A little research revealed that the manga and movies differ in their handling of the ending (which was supposedly very unexpected in the manga). The movie leaves unfulfilled questions as the credits roll; not unfulfilled in the Blade Runner sense, but rather unfulfilled in that they leave the viewer confused and frustrated.

Adding to my fury was the musical plot device. I cannot describe how jarring this terrible music is. In the film, it is the saviour of humanity, a rallying call to the masses to overthrow Tomodachi’s oppression. Yet the song, reminiscent of the Hindi chant (“Jai guru devra”) in Across the Universe by the Beatles, just does not live up to this billing. Especially in the absolutely idiotically handled ending in which this song plays a central role. As the credits roll and your blood boils, sit down and count to 60 (10 just won’t cut it) – the film isn’t over yet.

The epilogue of the film tries to reconcile the untied threads and bring completion to the main character, however, it doesn’t answer any questions that you want it to. Moreover, it is a fantasy setting and remains completely irrelevant as a result. While it was nice that it attempted to fill in the blanks, it should have occurred before you felt the urge to set fire to the screen.

I wanted to love this film, and I really enjoyed the first two parts, but ultimately the story asked too many questions and left them unanswered. The characters were well portrayed and the imagery was superb; I imagine fans of the manga would love it. However, having waited over a year for the resolution, I cannot help but feel disappointed that it ended so poorly. Rent it, try it, but don’t expect too much from Part III.

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About James
Amateur photographer researching Japanese domestic and regional security politics particularly related to 'normalisation' and the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens.

3 Responses to Review: 20th Century Boys Movie Trilogy

  1. I remember seeing Star Wars when I was very young, but somehow managed to avoid the sequels. Not to mention the prequels!

    Just to add more… Godfather III was a dreadful film (God, I nearly wrote movie) especially the bit where Al Pacino dies at the end! :)

  2. James says:

    The Godfather Part III is a great example.

    Indiana Jones also suffered in the second (Temple of Doom) incarnation, salvaged it entirely with the Last Crusade and then burnt out completely in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

  3. daemoncorps says:

    Late post, but I agree so wholeheartedly that I figured I should post anyways.

    I read 20th Century Boys around when the first movie came out, and followed along as each of the following movies were made. In both cases, I felt like what you mentioned were major problems. In the case of the manga, I’d read maybe a chapter or two every couple days. Even at that relatively quick pace, I felt like the narrative was completely going over my head for every non-flashback scene. Similarly with the movies, the release time between each one was so long that by the time I got to watching the latest one, I could barely remember the details that carried over from the previous movie.

    I randomly noticed I still had the movies on me today and figured I’d give the first one a watch-through just to see how it held up. While the buildup to the climax was good, and I did enjoy the very last bit with Kanna, I still can’t stand the explosion scene. At least in the manga, it could have been interpreted to have been a small enough explosion to justify the aftermath in terms of the characters. The movie was just too over the top and I felt like the made the explosion bigger than it needed to be just because they had the budget for it.

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