Disclaimer: I am only part way through 20th Century Boys and my fragmentary comments on the series reflect this partial reading.
Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys presents the fate of a group of young friends in 1969 who effectively write the future. From their secret base, they create a fantasy in which they rescue the world from evil threats like germ warfare, laser guns, and giant robots. When two bullies, Yanbo and Mabo, destroy the base towards the end of summer, Kenji, the group leader, decides that it is time to put fantasy aside and do homework in preparation for the upcoming school year. And that’s the last of the fantasy, until the boys are adults, thoroughly enmeshed in reality, all hopes of heroic action dissipated. Kenji runs a liquor/convenience store, and is saddled with the care of his missing sister’s daughter. Kenji’s friends have similarly mundane occupations. A wedding of one of the boys is an early event. The groom, Keroyon, says, “Kenji, you guys are gettin’ old now! You gotta get yourself settled down” (2.6) Thus, 20th Century Boys begins with the concept of subjectification, the point at which a person gives up on childish fantasies of power and significance and integrates with the grown-up world. In his speech at Keroyon’s wedding, Kenji talks about this reduction in expectation: “Maybe now Keroyon-Kun can now protect the peace of his household or the neighborhood” now that the dream of protecting the world from evil has passed (2.15).
But just at this point, the childhood fantasy re-asserts itself. Kenji spots a strangely familiar icon, the boy’s symbol of friendship, as graffiti on a fence. One of the group, Donkey, dies suspiciously, having sent Kenji a note about the icon. And a mysterious figure named “Friend” has adopted the icon for his cult. Soon, utopian childhood fantasy becomes dystopian present that demands heroic action from Kenji and his friends. In this sense, Urusawa’s plot has something of the superhero narrative about it, and the scenario plays upon the similar concerns about being an ordinary person with limited capability of acting in or upon the world whose problems seem insurmountable even when cities are not being terrorized by science fiction monsters. As a sort of internal allegory, A homeless man with a bowling obsession, nick-named “God,” appears to have visionary power. His abilities in relation to his social situation represent an extreme version of Kenji’s.
That the story begins in 1969, the year of Woodstock is significant because the narrative uses rock and roll as a metaphor for meaning in the world. The title comes from the T-Rex song, and Kenji has had aspirations to rock stardom. When Kenji’s sister buys him a guitar when he is a teenager, he looks at himself in the mirror and sees himself as a hero with a weapon: the electric guitar as phallus.
The rock musician is a twentieth-century analogue of the mythical hero. The image of Kenji in the mirror as “invincible man” (18.13) gives way to the image of the man from the convenience store head office, who represents everything that unmans Kenji, telling him that he has to stop carrying around his sister’s baby on his back because it is putting off customers. Kenji’s failure in this realm is emblematic, perhaps, of his status as a warrior. He requires redemption. And yet this redemption demands a re-configuring of the masculine hero, the exchange of the phallic but ultimately ineffective guitar for the niece Kenji carries on his back and cares for is not an emasculating one. Rather, it is the link between Kenji’s individual acceptance of responsibility for his world, a responsibility that the return of childhood fantasy as malevolent force magnifies.
That the force the group must fight as adults is associated with friendship and that their enemy goes by the name of Friend gets at the root of what Urasawa is doing with the theme of nostalgia. The bond of friendship defines the childhood of these characters, and adulthood threatens that bond. Other bonds, like marriage, become more significant. Because “Friend” uses the icon that symbolized the childhood group, Kenji and the others believe that he must be one of them. An early suspect is Otcho, who has gone missing in India and Thailand, but Otcho turns up and works with Kenji. Otcho is interesting because he actually has a heroic persona; he gets Zen training in India and rescues prostitutes in Thailand. He earns the nickname “Shogun.” But he is who he is because he has neglected marriage and fatherhood and has had to pay the price. Although Friend is ultimately identified as one of the boys, Fukubei, it is perhaps best to think of him as a psychological entity, the spectre of childhood friendship in adulthood, returning from the repressed to torment the boys with their failures.
In keeping with the theme of repression, there’s a lot of digging up of the buried past in the early going of 20th Century Boys: Kenji and his friends unearth a time capsule that they buried as children. Kenji ends up hiding underground with the homeless guys, earning the moniker “Kenji the underground emperor,” which is itself a kind of backhanded way of pointing out his insignificance.
The idea of ‘being someone’ drives the idea of nostalgia. We yearn for our youths because we were able to imagine ourselves as central figures in an engaging story, not just peripheral make-weights. Our yearning is not so much for the idyll but for the power that went with it. We had a secret base; our imaginary adventures were meaningful. We felt the ominous threats of the world in the form of bullies. Like Donkey, who runs especially fast when he takes off his shoes, we had special powers bestowed upon us by our imaginations. In adulthood, we cannot sustain those powers. We know too much about the mundane world we occupy to imagine ourselves rock stars, heroes, or even villains.
Urasawa’s vision is a stunning one. For he not only presents a “science fiction” narrative in images, but also provides a kind of analysis of why such a narrative is necessary from a historical, psychological perspective. Like all good science fiction, 20th Century Boys is less about escapism than it is about confronting our history by projecting it into the future, where we see what we might look like through the lens of what we imagined ourselves to be.
Urasawa, Naoki. 20th Century Boys. San Francisco: Viz Media, 2009.