In the last few months, I’d seen several comic sites ask what the Japanese equivalent to WATCHMEN was, and I waited for someone to finally point it what it was, since that series has been translated and published in the West for more than two years now. So far, no one has. I would have thought Viz might at least have released some kind of publicity material to promote the book in that context, especially since It’s been made into a trilogy of movies in Japan that were hits and are now out on DVD in the US and UK. It’s only one of the more significant comic book sagas of the last 20 years after WATCHMEN, after all. Since no one has talked about it in that context, I guess I’ll have to do it.
The Japanese counterpart to WATCHMEN is Naoki Urusawa’s 20th CENTURY BOYS.
Urusaswa’s manga series ran from 1999 to 2006. It has been collected into 22 volumes after serialization and the English translation is currently up to volume 11. Like WATCHMEN, it’s a postmodernist examination of the way pop culture becomes part of our personal mythologies during childhood, where we invest all kinds of desires and hopes into them. In WATCHMEN, it’s superheroes as constructs and expressions of the Cold War and the threat of Armageddon. In 20th CENTURY BOYS, it’s giant robots, doomsday conspiracies and secret superteams that save the world. The main characters are a group of working class friends who loved those cheesy Science Fiction anime and live action shows from the 1960s and 1970s as kids and formed a club with their own rules and an all-encompassing doomsday scenario to fight and save the world from. By the 1990s, they’re approaching middle age, having survived marriage, divorce and various adult disappointments, and settled into lives of mundane routine as a doomsday cult led by a masked mystery man named Friend gains power and followers across Japan. The friends realize the doomsday scenario Friend is pushing is exactly the same as the one they wrote together as children, now being turned into terrifying reality, and they’re the only ones who know this. This means Friend must be someone who grew you with them, and his plan to take over Japan and turn it into a base to destroy the world is either an elaborate form of revenge for a childhood hurt or a perverse invitation to them to finish the game they started as kids. With the government, the police and the media all falling under Friend’s thrall and no secret team of superheroes to stop him, the group of friends realize they have to become a secret team of operatives to save the world. Over the next decade and more, Friend’s cult takes over Japan and turns it into a crazy dictatorship and the heroes go from ordinary people to spies, guerilla fighters and underground leaders barely keeping one step ahead of Friend’s secret police. Even the daughter of one of the group becomes part of the next generation fighting in the Resistance. They’re now living out the fantasy they dreamed about as kids, only it’s not fun and some of them get killed. The race is on not only to uncover Friend’s identity, but to stop the last stage of his plan, which is to end the world.
By an interesting coincidence, the movie adaptation of 20th CENTURY BOYS went into production around the same time as the WATCHMEN movie with a massive budget, the biggest for a Japanese movie to date. Unlike the WATCHMEN movie, 20th CENTURY BOYS was split into a trilogy with each installment running more than two hours, and even then scenes, plots and characters had to be edited down to fit 22 volumes’ worth of story into less than eight hours in total. Like the WATCHMEN movie, much of the movie version of 20th CENTURY BOYS slavishly recreates the look and even frames from the original comic. Where WATCHMEN used superheroes to explore the apocalyptic conclusion of a Cold War policy left unchecked, 20th CENTURY BOYS used the Science Fiction conspiracy action thriller to examine Japan’s vulnerability to cults and what could happen if they were allowed to run amok, this in the wake of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s campaign of terror that culminated in the sarin gas attack of 1995, which was a shock to the Japanese psyche the same way 9/11 was a shock to the American psyche. 20th CENTURY BOYS was the highest profile manga to gain national attention during its run, winning awards over several years and covered continuously in mainstream media the same way WATCHMEN has been in the West. I was telling a producer not long ago that 20TH CENTURY BOYS is not unlike LOST with its mystery, its puzzles and its move towards an apocalyptic conclusion where all questions would be answered, though in light of the end of LOST, I’d say Urusawa’s manga and its movie adaptation ties up its loose ends a lot better than LOST did.
If you want to experience 20th CENTURY BOYS without waiting another two years or so for the English translation of the manga to reach its conclusion, you can get a hold of the DVDs of all three movies now. Where WATCHMEN ended on a note of ambiguous peace and complicity in a monstrous hoax, 20th CENTURY BOYS ends with redemption, the healing of a childhood wound, and forgiveness.
This amuses me to no end: in a time when studios realise that long-running franchises are the gifts that keep on giving, this week saw the premiere of a big budget live action movie of SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, touted as Japan’s big blockbuster tentpole event of the year.
Geeks over 30 will fondly remember YAMATO in the form of the re-edited English-dubbed anime series STARBLAZERS from the late 70s and early 80s. In Japan, the original anime series ran in the mid-1970s and, by the 80s, had spawned further spinoff series and at least four original anime feature films. Created by manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, who also created GALAXY EXPRESS 999 and SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK (also getting a rebooted movie scheduled for 2012), SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO was actually a wish-fulfillment allegory: beleaguered humanity down it its last legs is Japan facing an insurmountable invading alien force that’s a metaphor for America as led by General MacArthur at the end of World War II. You can’t get more obvious than to name the starship that’s Japan’s – I mean, Mankind’s – last hope after the destroyed WWII battleship that symbolized the fighting spirit of Japan itself, Yamato.
As you can see from the clip, the new live action movie updates the CGI effects and cribs heavily from the recent revamped BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with its frantic space dogfights and even the reconfiguration of a female character into a tough Starbuck-style fighter pilot. The Japanese are nothing if not meticulous in cribbing from the best. The director is Takashi Yamazaki, a mainstream journeyman best known for the Sci-Fi time-travelling actioner RETURNER starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, and sentimental crowd-pleaser ALWAYS: SUNSET ON THIRD STREET, a slick Capra-esque comedy-drama about a Tokyo neighbourhood as post-WWII modernisation and recovery got underway. ALWAYS was enough of a hit to prompt Yamazaki to make a sequel before moving onto YAMATO. Looks like YAMATO will feature GALACTICA-style grit and action, but will replace the ridiculous God bullshit with Nipponese nationalism and lots of crying. No change in the latter, then.
After watching the clips, I rather fancy a copy of the blu-ray when it comes out next year. I hope it’ll have subtitles.
And now, the conclusion of Bleeding Cool’s first fiction serial by Adi Tantimedh and premier PUNISHER writer Steven Grant.
Depraved London media wag Alan Brond and his producer girlfriend Yvonne finally take the war to the enemy, with a reality TV crew in tow filming them live…
BROND ON THE RUN
By Adisakdi Tantimedh and Steven Grant
Yvonne’s first official act of war against her former patrons was to shoot out the security cameras in the elevator bay. My own methods were more subtle and childish. I admit the day’s constant violence was beginning to wear on me in ways I’d never thought possible, and momentarily I entertained the notion of a special series in the Manchester Times denouncing the effects of televised violence on children. Which I might have pursued had I not feared being tarred forever as a Tory, but the prospect of a distraction, however reactionary, from the invasion at hand was an attractive one.
From my own bag I dug out a can of industrial black spray paint, stepped into each of the elevators by turn and Brixtoned the cameras in them. The BBC had placed microphones into each elevator as well, but these were already disconnected, no doubt by various scheming junior executives fearful of having their mundane and unimaginative plots overheard. On the top floor, Fiona was doubtless waiting, and we had no questions regarding the reception she was certainly planning for us. We were potentially meal tickets, but our deaths would bring her the one thing she craved even more than programming supremacy. By eliminating us on live television, she would replace us as stars of the hour, and her control of the BBC would ensure that spot for her long after her own death. In killing Yvonne and myself, she would have it all. Murder sometimes remains a punishable crime in this country, but nothing makes the English quite so forgiving as total victory.
Besides, she knew Yvonne well enough to know she couldn’t expect to have her treachery uncovered and live.
One by one, I punched all the buttons on each of the elevator cars and sent them on their way, rising erratically floor by floor to increase tension at the top as greatly as possible. Certain now that we were not being watched, Yvonne and I kicked in the fire door to the stairwell and started up. In this, our years of sexual aerobics proved a boon. It had been so long since anyone at the BBC had used the stairs no one would even remember they were there. We didn’t even bother with the cameras. Irony had never failed us yet, and we were betting on it to carry us through once again. The fact was that we were still on live television. All Fiona would need to do was turn on the tube to track us relentlessly through the building and prepare for our every move, but she had a notorious pseudo-upper class disgust for television programming (she felt it would help her mix with “the right people”) and disdained even to listen to televised weather reports. Television, for her, was money and power, not entertainment.
Above us we heard gunfire as the first elevator reached the top floor and opened. As planned, the sound repeated a moment later. We counted, taking the stairs now four and five steps at a time, measuring our progress against the staccato outbursts. We had to be there exactly as the eighth elevator opened.
We burst through the top floor fire door as Fiona’s army opened fire on the eighth empty elevator. They had no idea what happened. Yvonne fired an automatic repeating grenade launcher with one hand while unleashing a barrage from a modified antique Sten with the other. I myself needed no more than the Widowmaker and its relentless whipsaw flechette assault. The guards, caught unawares, panicked, unable to immediately gauge the source of the attack, and did much of our work for us, cutting each other to shreds. Readers who wish to know specific gruesome details may view the special collectors DVD release. The rest should be satisfied to know the “war,” as Corby’s tabloids took to calling it, was over in seconds.
“That’s what she gets for hiring from Central Casting,” I quipped.
Fiona suddenly appeared to our blind side, wielding a primitive but effective double-barrel shotgun loaded with shilling-filled shells. Fired from that weapon, the coins would punch daylight through kevlar. She had us dead to rights, point blank. We both began to react but it was already too late. Fiona’s finger twitched. The shotgun went off.
The coins whistled past us, three feet to our left. I now understood Fiona’s motive for murdering Pemfrey, but before I could be certain I had to save her from Yvonne, who turned and fired. Fiona’s hands exploded, and the shotgun fell to the ground, flanked by scraps of charred flesh that had once been fingers. Fiona fell to her knees, burbling tears like an abandoned infant. Yvonne stood mercilessly over her, pressed the grenade launcher to Fiona’s skull, and cocked the release.
“Leave her,” I said. “Dead, she can’t sign over the company to us. Besides, she did it for you.”
“What?” Yvonne blinked as if struck, and studied me to see if I’d been struck in the head or gone mad. My casual smirk convinced her otherwise.
I crouched before Fiona, gently lifting her chin to gaze only half-mockingly into her eyes. I felt a pang of sympathy for her, the dreaded empathy Yvonne always knew I was susceptible to. “Confess, Fiona. You’ve been found out. How long have you loved our Yvonne?”
Between her sobs, Fiona admitted, “Since Cambridge.” I could tell she’d been waiting all this time to unburden herself and let her true, buried feelings be known. “She’s the only one, the only one,” she began to babble as madness and shame overtook her.
“And this is why you tried to kill me? Because Yvonne was mine?”
Fiona nodded, broken. “What rubbish,” Yvonne said.
I threw Yvonne an accusing look. “You never led her on?”
Yvonne considered it. “In our college days, she could only go to sleep with her head buried between my legs but everyone was under stress then. I thought nothing of it,” she said, already refusing any culpability. “Kill you? She was after Pemfrey.”
“Fiona,” I replied smugly, enjoying Yvonne’s rare discomfort, “can’t aim, as she just so amply demonstrated.”
From there, it was a matter of cleaning up. Fiona, relieved of her duties, was remanded to Bedlam Hospital, purchased and reopened by Corby just for the occasion. It was easy enough to forge her signature to documents transferring ownership of the BBC to Yvonne, but I knew Yvonne wouldn’t last. That was the domain of bureaucrats, not talent, and, sure enough, within a month, Yvonne had grown bored with it. The company ended up in Corby’s hands as well, with both Yvonne and I receiving huge salaries as members of the board, while Corby securely controls our proxies. He expanded his reputation as the most evil man in the world by astronomically multiplying his fortunes licencing, without warranty, the millennial resurrection of Princess Diana (who, unfortunately for his licensors, failed to put in an appearance despite testimony by countless hysterics who claim to have seen her rise from the dead) and by purchasing worldwide rights to MUTANT X for far less than a penny on the dollar and broadcasting the show only in Scotland, where it has gained a huge audience, by virtue of being one of only two shows aired there.
The other, of course, is BROND ON THE RUN, now in its fifth season. A mere producer once more, Yvonne is much happier and, relieved of her transsexual embarrassment of a half-sister (or brother, as the case may be), she has found something akin to inner peace. I finally have the opportunity to see the world, and, as I told Yvonne what now seems like a lifetime ago, there are Pemfreys everywhere. Until the last of them is eliminated, my claim to Pemfrey’s fortune is in no way secure, but residuals from the show, now aired in 389 countries, more than make up for that. I shoot Pemfreys for sport now, not for money. And for ratings, of course.
While the public has been extremely enthusiastic about the show, the critics continue to savage it. I’ve been patient, but enough is enough. I’ll be visiting them soon.
I know how to deal with critics.
Sci-Fi-ing away at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’ve begun the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed. Follow me at http://twitter.com/lookitmoves for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.
Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh
Brond on the Run © Adisakdi Tantimedh and Steven grant