I had earlier written about comic books being rich material for filmmakers to raid and adopt them into a cinematic version, and with the success of the Death Note franchise, it's more than apparent that such movies will have its built in audience, and in this case, to skyrocket the movie to box office success.
Depending on how the story is adapted, some will take liberties to gear the material for non-fans, to introduce it to a new audience. Death Note for instance, does this quite perfectly, drawing those unfamiliar with its mythos, and at the same time entertaining the fanboys. Mushishi on the other hand, assumed that one goes in with a bit of background knowledge, as it doesn't dwell too long, if at all, on the character backstory. 20th Century Boys however managed to take the middle ground, though I felt its presentation was somewhat left wanting.
We're introduced to Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa), a supermarket manager who's about to be thrown into the adventure of his life. In a school reunion, he gets acquainted with his old pals, most of whom he already cannot recognize, before they launch into a discussion of a strange series of happenings which involve the emergence of their secret logo created during their childhood. As they catch up with one another, we also learn that collectively amongst the group, they vaguely recollect their 9 members, and hence sowed some suspicion as to the identity of who the new cult leader is, one who always hide behind a mask and calls himself Kira, oops, wrong movie - “Friend”.
Throw into the plot yet another device in the form of a book called the Book of Prophecies, which Kenji is chief author, in somewhat of a create your own adventure with his pals, as they dream of the world coming to an end at the turn of the millennium, what with strange plagues, terrorist attacks, and a giant robot taking the place of the stay puff marshmallow man. They realize that world disasters are unfolded as per the sequence in their childhood book, and thus, with their sense of responsibility, work to try and put an end to the madness.
For the first half of the movie, the story really plods on, as it took great pains to try and introduce to us the array of characters important to the series, including an infant heralded as the Chosen One. While most of the characters remain rather one-dimensional with nothing much revealed about their background despite the frequent flashbacks (some which do get repetitive), Kenji is the focus of this installment, as we see an emergence of a resistance fighter from within a mild and meek, and often clueless supermarket manager. He doesn't really strike you as charismatic or well skilled to lead a group of do-gooders, but the second half would address all those concerns.
In wanting to remain unconventional, the story moves forward and back so frequently, that it'll give you a headache. It seemed to be wanting to shovel down character backgrounds incessantly, as every opportunity found to go into flashback mode, will be utilized, so much so that it becomes mentally tiring after a while to keep track of current time. Time plays an important part in the story as it hinges everything on D-Day of 31 December 2000, where a foretold apocalypse is expected to happen.
And here's where it really shines, even when the arrival of D-Day involved plenty of droning pep-talking. Looking at the locations, sets, and big action sequences throughout the film, it's indeed a relatively big budget production with no qualms about throwing money to achieve some form of visual perfection. The finale is nothing short of breathtaking, and with well filled tension, though if you're not expecting this to be the first episode of an franchise, you'll find yourself swearing at its cliffhanger ending. It's not a complete story per se even though it managed to remain self-contained, as it retains just about as much mystery as it did from the onset, with nothing much revealed or addressed.
For those looking into something more, I thought it had drawn some interesting parallels about the dangers of cults, and how enticing the promises made by preacher could be, with the followers blinding adhering to every word like it's the gospel. There are enough false prophets in the world, but those who can command a huge following, could grow and if their aspirations do find their way to the political arena, then just as how a manga-turned-movie would have its ready audience, then these political parties would already come with their congregation as ready supporters and voters.
For the eager beavers, it's not until January that you can watch the next part, so do remember to stay until right after the end credits roll for the trailer to Part 2.