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DVD Review: 20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End

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In case you haven’t heard about it, you should know that 20th Century Boys is kind of a big deal. The manga by Naoki Urasawa has been wildly popular in Japan and has made its way to the States, but the big news comes from the release of the live action version. Planned as a trilogy of films, 20th Century Boys was one of the highest budgeted, most popular Japanese movies in quite some time. The first installment, Beginning of the End, is coming out next week and the question remains whether or not the series will strike it big with an American audience.

I must admit right out of the gate that I had never read the manga prior to watching the film. This inherently leaves me bewildered by what transpires in the film, and I obviously had no idea about the complexities of the plot or relationships omitted from the movie. After all, this is a highly condensed version of the manga and if you are as unfamiliar with it as I was you’ll feel like you're missing something. Despite that, it’s clear enough to see the epic nature of the plot. It’s wholly unlike anything out there and wildly imaginative from top to bottom. It’s just a shame that the film feels disorganized and poorly edited. Before we get into what holds 20th Century Boys back, let’s take a look at what it’s all about.

20th Century Boys is a mystery unlike any other. It’s a story about a hero who rises up to save the world from evil, but it’s done so in a way that truly stands out. With copious amounts of flashbacks, the story weaves itself together as the film progresses, slowly building on what viewers already know. Bouncing between events that took place in the late '60s and the film’s main setting in the late '90s, everything centers on a group of boys.

At the apex of events is a guy named Kenji. He’s a washed-up rocker who is just going through the motions of life. He manages a dying convenience store, watches over his sister’s baby, and unfortunately doesn’t do much else. All of that changes when the police arrive to question him about the disappearance of his neighbors. Upon visiting their house he sees a symbol painted on a wall of an eye with a gloved hand pointing upwards. This symbol comes up again during his class reunion, at which point he learns about a strange religious cult that has surfaced, and its leader named Friend.

On top of all this there’s a viral outbreak in San Francisco and Africa. This virus causes blood to spontaneously drain from the body and there’s global fear of the epidemic spreading. Slowly, but surely, bits and pieces fall into place and Kenji and his old schoolmates begin to remember details from their youth that remind them of Friend’s cult. Events take shape and it hearkens back to a book of prophecy Kenji and the kids made over a summer break.

Basically this book detailed events of a villain who would take over the world through the use of a virus, attacks on cities, and other devilish means. The kids were very creative when it came to the destruction of the world, but throughout it all there was a hero who would rise above and defeat the monster. It would seem that one of the group, or someone close to them, took the book a little too seriously. Friend has complete knowledge of everything and he has been acting according to the plans that were laid out in Kenji’s book. Soon Kenji is pulled into these events and put on a pedestal as the hero of the story.

Things get so much more complicated than that and the story truly borders on epic. One really gets the sense that there’s so much more to come with each passing moment, but the film unfortunately doesn’t live up to the hype. It falls flat at a couple of points and doesn’t capitalize on many of its more interesting plot points.

One problem 20th Century Boys has is the pacing. The first three-quarters of this film are dreadfully slow as the setting is built and the plot starts to come together. Things are interesting for sure, and there’s definitely a feeling that it’s all leading to someplace great, but these pieces should have been edited down to a leaner form. There are extraneous conversations that lead nowhere and some of the events are too haphazardly put together for their own good. One instance is a rather random point where Kenji goes to a Friend concert and confronts the crowd, band, and Friend. It has no prior setup and it really feels like the film just jumped to a part of the manga out of necessity.

The manner with which the film is edited can be rather jarring at times, but it’s worth noting that the flashback sequences are very well done. The bits of memory that eventually get pieced together is very compelling and doesn’t feel out of place at all. Ultimately though, 20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End is a movie that feels like pieces of a whole that don’t quite mesh. The overall plot is very interesting and the acting is spot on, but from the position of someone who hasn’t read the manga, a lot of the story was lost on me. I think it will mean more to a reader of the manga than a newcomer, but maybe the coming films will clarify the storyline.

Please note that this review is for a pre-release screener and as such the audio/video quality is not final. There are no menus or bonus features as a result.

VIZ’s presentation of 20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End hits DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer of this film leaves something to be desired with a high level of grain, interlacing, and compression artifacts. There is a fine degree of sharpness and colors are vibrant enough. It’s also worth noting that some of the moments in this film are visually striking and look much better than others. The audio quality is good as well with clean dialogue and a decent presence in the sound field. Japanese with English subtitles was the only option available on this screener.

All in all 20th Century Boys: Beginning of the End isn’t a bad film by any means. The story is very interesting and teeters on the verge of epic many times. Unfortunately the movie is poorly edited and at times it feels as though the project may have been better suited as a TV series instead of a full-length feature. There are also some details left out of the fold and newcomers, such as myself, will be left confounded about some things. Fans of the manga can consider this film strongly recommended, while the uninitiated and curious may want to check out the manga first.

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