Aside from PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA, this film is THE Japanese film event of the year. The first installment of an ambitious, sprawling trilogy with a reported total budget of 6 billion yen (that's 60 million USD, posters claim that it's an all-time high) starring Japan's most popular actors and comedians (it's the most star-studded Japanese film I've seen since Mitani's THE MAGIC HOUR) and based on a 24-volume award-winning manga series by Naoki Urasawa (same guy who did MONSTER).
I've gotten so confident with my Japanese comprehensive skills that I decide to sit through this 2 and a half hour film instead of HANCOCK. The film reminded me a lot about Stephen King's IT (its miniseries adaptation is one of the most memorable during my childhood, being a fat kid then, I wanted to grow up like John Ritter). The catalyst of the ensemble film is the death of a member from a group of childhood friends, bringing the nearly middle-aged members together.
I'll borrow the synopsis from Wikipedia:
Growing older is pretty rough and Kenji is finding out just how hard it can be as life starts wearing down on him. On top of trying to make ends meet running a convenience store he has to care for the niece that his missing sister left in his care. Memories of youth make it easier, until those memories come back to haunt him.
Kenji and his old friends are slowly being drawn into a mysterious conspiracy that could threaten the world. Who is the mysterious "Friend" and how does he tie into Kenji's youth? Why are there disappearances and deaths tied into Ochanomizu University? Their memories hold the keys to the puzzle, but time and age have clouded their minds.
The strange occurrences and the reach of the "Friend" conspiracy grow by the day. It will all culminate on New Year's Eve 2000. Will Kenji and the others be able to put together the puzzle and save the world?
This movie jumps back and forth between the 60s and the 90s. Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa, the white-haired dude in CASSHERN) the aging wannabe rocker who works at a convenience store starts out as a regular joe, but becomes gradually heroic and courageous as the film goes on, as the power of "Friend" and his cult grows stronger. Aside from IT, the manga actually draws its inspiration from another Stephen King book, THE STAND. (Kenji's arc is a little like Stuart Redman's.)
Despite being just the first part of a trilogy, the film is pretty epic by itself. Horrible things happened throughout the world just as Kenji and his friends had written in a notebook when they were kids thirty years earlier. London and San Franciso being hit by plague, the National Diet and Haneda Airport being blown to bits, and in the end, there's a giant robot storming its way through Shinjuku (my reaction: "Wow, I walked past these places just now to the cinema!!!" Quite a surreal experience) on the eve of a new millennium, destroying everything, spraying a super strain Ebola-inducing mist at the military and police who try to stop it. The climatic sequence was "holy crap!"-inducing for me.
There's this feeling of awesomeness when I saw Kenji and his childhood friends calmly walking towards the gigantic weapon of mass destruction, knowing that they are the only ones who can stop it. It's a little like my own childhood fantasies.
Ryuganji had once mentioned that director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, whose previous film was the very good HAPPILY EVER AFTER (read my review), is known more for his stylistic visual gimmicks than being an actors' director, but I personally think that he's underrated when it comes to drawing out good performances from his leads. He may have the convenience of working with A-list actors, but not all directors can draw out good performances from good actors. Miki Nakatani and Hiroshi Abe gave some of their very best film performances in HAPPILY EVER AFTER (frankly, Nakatani's performance here, to me, is second only to her tour-de-force performance in MEMORIES OF MATSUKO, and she wasn't even that memorable in TRAIN MAN). And while HAPPILY EVER AFTER is vastly smaller in scale, the film was also told in an unconventional chronological sequence, which is also deftly handled in 20TH CENTURY BOYS (most probably HAPPILY EVER AFTER was a warm-up for 20TH CENTURY BOYS) in the intercutting between the contemporary storyline and the childhood flashbacks.
In terms of performance, Toshiaki Karasawa is good as the protagonist (though he's really more convincing as a hero than a regular convenience store worker). Toyokawa Etsushi is memorable as the badass Occho even though he appeared only during the third act (pretty different from the nerdy guy he played in LOVE LETTER, and definitely less campy as his role as the badass rebel scientist Dr Tadakoro in JAPAN SINKS!), Kagawa Teruyuki (last seen in Bong Joon-Ho's segment in the anthology film TOKYO!) is really a chameleon and I think he'll have a bigger role in the following films. It's also good to see Takako Tokiwa again, aside from her voicework in BRAVE STORY, I don't think I remember seeing her in anything since the classic dorama A BEAUTIFUL LIFE and the Andy Lau film A FIGHTER'S BLUE, and both came out in 2000! It's amazing that she didn't seem to have aged at all though. A little girl who played Kanna is good too. Her adult version will be played by Taira Airi, who appeared briefly at the end of the film, and is probably the protagonist for the next two films.
I'll probably want to watch the film again with subtitles to understand what I missed out yesterday. But I'm definitely looking forward to catch part 2 on the 31st of January, 2009.
20th Century Boys Trailer (they're smart not to reveal too much of the giant robot)
Check out Daily Yomiuri's article about the film's 7-year preparation. And Jason Gray's review too.