NYAFF Double Feature – I’m Your Toy, Your 20th Century Boy

Why do we care so much whenever our favorite novel, comic, or cartoon is adapted into a live-action movie? After all, we already have the original version right there in front of us, and we know that something in the story is going to be lost when squeezed into a 2-hour-long flick. So why do we care so much when that story is shown back to us on the big screen?

I think the reason is because when you see the story on the big screen being portrayed by real life actors, it feels more real and authentic. It gives the fan the notion that the fictional world could happen in real life. Even with something so deep in fantasy as the Lord of the Rings saga could actually look realistic when done as a big budget Hollywood blockbuster.

Viz has recently released Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and Pluto in America, and both series have been taking manga critics by storm. When everyone submits their “Best of 2009” lists at the end of this year, you can bet that those two titles will be placed at the top of many of those lists.

They are most certainly at the top of my list right now. As the newest member of the Urasawa fan club, I was very eager to see the first two films of the 20th Century Boys live-action trilogy being shown at the New York Asian Film Festival last weekend.

So did these films succeed in bringing the original comics to life on the big screen?

Yes, oh god yes, they did! (^_^)

In 1969, Kenji and a group of his friends build a little clubhouse in the middle of a field. They spend their days hanging out in there reading manga, listening to British and American rock music on the radio, and carefully stashing away a collection of nudie magazines. It was the ultimate boys’ paradise, and so the boys created a special symbol to celebrate the club and wrote the “Book of Prophecies”, a sci-fi scripture on how they become super-heroes who protect the world from an evil organization in the year 2000.

Nearly 30 years later and just before the turn of the century, the now adult Kenji begins noticing some odd occurrences. His sister has abandon her daughter, Kanna, at his doorstep and begs Kenji to protect the girl at all costs. One of his childhood pals has suddenly committed suicide. A weird virus has been causing an epidemic all over the world. And he keeps on seeing a mysterious symbol drawn all over the place.

And then it all starts coming together for Kenji. That symbol was the same one his clubhouse used back in ’69. That virus was a part of the story the boys wrote in that “Book of Prophecies” long ago. In fact, everything they wrote in the “Book of Prophecies” was starting to come true!

And so sets up an epic saga as Kenji reconnects with his old friends to figure out what they wrote in that book 30 years ago, and just which one of them is trying to make it a reality.

And when I say epic, I mean epic! The original comic ran for 24 volumes in Japan, and each one of the live-action trilogy films lasts for nearly 2.5 hours. Viz has released the first three volumes of the manga this year with the fourth coming next month. So prior to seeing the movies, I had only read the three volumes released so far.

And much to my surprise, those first three volumes were just a drop in the bucket to the scope of this massive sci-fi story. Everything I had read in the manga was shown in the first 90 minutes of the first movie, leaving the rest of the 3.5 hours of movie viewing completely new to me. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and I would have easily sat there for another 5 hours just watching more of this story!

Of the parts that I can compare to what I read in the manga, I saw the most perfect live-action adaptation possible. The actors they selected were dead-on perfect doppelgangers to their fictional counterparts, especially in the more “cartoonie” looking characters. All the costumes and props matched the original artwork, and many of the scenes were shot like the comic panel-by-panel, frame-by-frame. The only changes were the order that events took place in the movie, but that hardly took anything away from the original story.

Similar to the Back to the Future trilogy, 20th Century Boys focuses on three key time frames: the past (1969), the present (around 2000, the year that the comic was first released), and the future (2015). The first movie centers around Kenji in the present time frame as he tries to remember the events that happened in the past. The second film centers around his niece Kanna in the future time frame, though she learns about those same events from her uncle’s past thanks to virtual reality simulators.

And those virtual reality simulators are one of the main reasons why I loved the movies so much even while going into the fourth hour. Again, just like in Back to the Future, the future world portrayed in the second film is absolutely awesome from a sci-fi and technological perspective. It’s a world were movies are watched on 3D projection and video games are played with holograms in front of your face.

Sure, it’s a dystopian society, but it’s an awesome looking dystopian society.

The second films also revolve around two of the coolest characters I have ever seen portrayed in fiction, the spunky heroine of the future, Kanna, and the modern day samurai warrior Shogun (both pictured above). Kanna is the embodiment of action chick hotness and Shogun just kicks serious ass. Shogun’s climatic entrance at the end of the second film had the NYAFF audience hooting and hollowing after sitting around for five hours.

Truly an incredible movie-going experience, and that was just in the first two films! (o_o)

Both movies were released in Japan last August and January respectively and the last film is scheduled for release next month. The NYAFF’s head of Japanese programing Marc Walkow explained that they were really trying to get the entire trilogy at this year’s festival with the third film having its world premiere in New York. Unfortunately, the film was still not finished being edited in post-production.

However, just days ago Viz Pictures announced that they had acquired the rights to the trilogy and will begin showing the first two films at their new theater in San Francisco during the latter half of August. And for the first time ever in Japanese cinema, the third film will premier and run in America the same week it premiers in Japan!

I cannot stress enough how amazing these films are. The 20th Century Boys live-action trilogy perfectly brings to life the fantastic manga series by Naoki Urasawa. If you’re in San Francisco, you must see these films next month. Otherwise, be sure to pick up the DVDs when they begin their releases at the end of this year.

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