30 December 2009

Twentieth Century Boys

Based on high recommendations from my friend Gilles, I just rented and watched 20th Century Boys (Pt. 1) last night.

The basic idea of the story is that a group of school friends make a secret clubhouse out of grass one summer to have a place to look at manga, listen to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and so forth on the radio, and share what passes for porn in junior high school. As part of passing the time, they make up a symbol for their group (an up-pointing finger over an eyeball) and create a group sketchbook that shows a series of attacks on the world that the friends come together to defeat. 25 years later, world events seem to be eerily echoing the sketchbook from their childhood, and they're forced to come together again to deal with this fact.

It's an interesting take on storytelling, since the story spans the time from the early 70s through 2015. It pops back and forth in time a lot, although they're pretty consistent about using a supertitled date to tell you where you are. That was absolutely essential towards the end of the movie, when they started jumping around by a few days instead of 20 years. The basic idea is interesting, and in the story the characters try to access 25-year-old memories to attempt to reconstruct the details of that long-ago summer, so cutting back to those scenes lets the audience learn the memories as the characters relive them. Also, the casting is awesome; they did a fantastic job of getting child actors who all plausibly look like the child versions of the adult actors.

They picked well for the central character to tell the story through: Kenji was a close to a leader as the group had back in the day, with personal style that eventually led him into a career as a rock'n'roller -- which in turn caused him to drink his way down out of society. Now he's a convenience store clerk (the initial scenes of the manager exhorting him to practice the chain's greeting more sincerely is just one of the many little societal commentaries in the film) who's raising his niece as a single parent.

Unfortunately, I think the weakest point of the story is the one widely shared among Manga adaptations, whether animated or live action -- the storytelling is frequently elided. That is to say, there are just scenes you need to have that aren't there. Towards the end, the enemy (ironically named "Friend", he heads up a cult/political party called "Friend Party" / 友民党) has sent a giant robot into Tokyo and our group gets together and heads out to stop him. Cut to, shot of one of the group tackling Friend from behind on the top of a building. How did they get there? How did he know where Friend was? etc. is never explained. Another member of the group, for equally unknowable reasons, happens to be watching from the next rooftop.

This shortcut storytelling is so widespread among Manga adaptations it must be a fairly conscious choice (if you watch standard Japanese TV dramas or live action movies, they don't suffer from this problem, so it's not like storytelling is unknown here). I've always assumed that it comes from the fact that the main audience in Japan for a Manga adaptation is people who are already fans of the Manga -- thus, the filmmakers assume the audience already basically knows the story, and wants to get to the "good parts", i.e., the scenes where the characters' emotions are clearly on display and/or the action scenes, rather than actually clearly retell a story the audience already knows. In terms of the domestic market for a film like this, that makes perfect sense; unfortunately, and to the great detriment of the industry here, it severely limits the market for the film outside the Manga's pre-existing fanbase. Most worldwide audiences do prefer their stories clearly told rather than needing to guess at the missing pieces.

12 December 2009

Please get wasted at home

From Tokyo

There's a public service campaign going on right now about not putting on your makeup, drinking soda, etc. while riding the train -- the tagline is always, "Please do it at home." The latest poster addresses a different behavior to be practiced in the home, though.

Note for those not living in Japan: this is not a joke, these posters are really up all over Tokyo right now.