Twentieth Century Boys, Vol 1: Friends
Author: Naoki Urasawa
Publisher: Viz Media
American release date: February 17, 2009
Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/Manga/Mystery/Sci-fi/160 pages
Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★
Kenji once dreamed of being a hero and doing big things, but middle-age finds him the co-owner of a former liquor store, along with his mother. And he’s raising the niece his sister dumped off on them before she ran away to who knows where. He loves Kanna with all his heart and wouldn’t have it any other way. What do long ago foolish dreams matter in the face of reality?
Kenji is annoyed to learn the police are investigating the disappearance of the entire Shikishima family, mostly because they owe him money. Hopefully if the police stake out the place, they’ll want to buy snacks from his convenience store, he reasons. In the meantime, his childhood friend Keroyon, aka Froggie, is getting married. Whodathunk it? He did get his nickname for a reason, after all. While retrieving empty bottles from the missing family’s home, Kenji finds a strange symbol by the door. Something seems awfully familiar about that symbol, but he just can’t place it. Kenji quizzes some of his childhood friends about it, but no one remembers anything.
The morning paper brings horrible news. Another of his old friends, Donkey, a science teacher, has jumped from the roof of the high school where he taught… to his death. Kenji doesn’t think Donkey would ever do something like that. A strange boy they befriended long ago, he was particularly known for being a fast runner who told them that you can run faster with your shoes off. Kenji receives a letter from Donkey to him written just a few days previously, although he’d not talked to him in a good long while. The letter contains a drawing and asks if Kenji remembers this symbol… the same symbol Kenji’s been wondering about himself! Could it be a coincidence, or something much more? And Donkey ends with talk soon… does this sound like someone who’s about to kill himself?
Kenji talks to Donkey’s widow, and she mentions that her husband told her that one of his former students was in trouble, but she only remembered his first name and where he went to school. Through good detective work, and a little luck, Kenji finds the student, who seems to be on his way somewhere. The man is secretive and mysterious and tells Kenji if he’s reached the symbol, he’s only one step away from true friendship. What the heck does that mean?
Kenji and some of his old group of friends meet to toast the late Donkey, and he continues to grill them about the symbol. Still no one recalls anything. Until Mon-chan remembers that when they were young, they buried something, but can’t remember exactly what that was. Not sure if that means anything or not, they decide to hunt it down, which isn’t easy as much has changed over the years. They’re surprised to find… (no spoilers here, gotta read it)
This is the first volume in a series about a group of young men who did something that helped to save the world. Kenji is the main character, through whose eyes we see most of the action. The story takes place across different time frames, so we see what’s going on at different points in the boys’ lives, 1969, 1997, and the present. The first volume lays the groundwork for everything and asks questions which need to be answered. Such as who are the Twentieth Century Boys? What did they do? Who is Friend? Is he friend or foe? And is/was he one of them?
I like the writing (I’ll have to read Monster too, which is by the same author), as well as the artwork. Kenji is a good character, just a simple normal guy, living out his life, even if it wasn’t the one he dreamed of. He’s unwilling to accept the truth that appears to lie on the surface of things, and insists on delving further down, to clear Donkey’s name, and to solve the mystery of the symbol. All the characters are well-drawn, including the horrible twins whom they refer to as “the evilest twins in history.” I really enjoyed reading this, although sometimes I had to re-read to keep things clear in my head because of the time jumps. But in the end it all made sense, and I look forward to reading the next volume.