20th Century Boys

This is a bit off-topic for this blog, but I wanted to make comment about the film adaptation of 20th Century Boys (20世紀少年) a pretty killer manga by Naoki Urasawa. The manga is about Kenji, a regular joe convenience store owner who realizes that a story he wrote as a child about the destruction of Tokyo is being used as basis for an insane terrorist plot. The manga is very long and quite complicated; it jumps back and forth between present-day Japan, Japan in the near future, and Japan in the early 1960s. There are a great many characters and the connections between them are hard to keep track of. But the whole thing is fascinating, both because it’s a high tension drama about a single man’s attempt to stop a madman that everybody else seems to love, and because it shows how the central characters age and change over time. It is not, I would think, an easy work to convert into a film.

However, having watched the first film a few weeks ago (which covers about the first 1/2 of the story; the second film is in theaters here now), I am greatly impressed by the extreme care with which the story has been adapted. There are a few minor changes, and more than a few unnecessary scenes have been trimmed, but fundamentally the (quite long) film hits every single major plot point from the first half of the manga series perfectly. The characters are all there, and the actors and actresses portraying them have been so perfectly selected that most characters are immediately recognizable. This is, hands down, the most faithful adaptation of any comic, video game, or book to film that I have ever seen (the first couple of Spider-Man films were pretty faithful too, but they have nothing on 20th Century Boys). It’s as if the director sat down with the comic panels and used them directly as his story boards; with the exception of a number of omitted scenes, it’s pretty much all there.

The problem is, I get the feeling that the film will make absolutely no sense to viewers who are not already familiar with the manga. The transitions from scene to scene, from time slice to time slice, are too abrupt and arbitrary; in the original comic there were plenty of pages of exposition to ease the reader from one theme to the next, but the film has so many bases to cover in such a short amount of time that it is reduced to a collection of almost unconnected scenes (although each scene itself is quite good). Clearly the film suffers from its short time limit, even though it clocks in at two and a half hours. There’s just too much story to tell, and while a series of three films might have made more sense length-wise, the plot is very easy to divide in half and very hard to divide into thirds.

So I am left wondering if a work like this can be translated to film properly. Stephen King is famously hands-off when it comes to films based on his work because he believes film to be fundamentally different than writing, and he leaves it in the hands of his directors to render his works in screen format. But then again, almost all of the movies based on Kings works are terrible (though it’s worth mentioning that the non-terrible ones are absolute gems). In the case of 20th Century Boys, the director has been absolutely meticulous in the translation of the manga to film, and yet the result feels disjointed and off-pace. When I went to see the Silent Hill film, the friends I was with were evenly split about the first fifteen minutes: those who have played the games loved the well-executed film recreation, and those who had not played the games found the intro long and boring. I’ve yet to see the Siren film that came out here in Japan, but I suspect that it will be pretty bad if it just tries to recreate the plot of the game; there’s too many characters and too much cyclical interaction for the story to play out well linearly. Maybe the approach of the first Resident Evil film, which used the main characteristics of the series as its thematic basis but then presented an original story, is the better way to go (that film is unfortunately also pretty bad).

This is, perhaps, an area where games are closer to literature than to film. A game has a very long time to present its story, and details can emerge at a rate much slower than in a film. Maybe the reason that game stories suck so much (David Cage likened them to porn film plots) is that film-length tales are being dragged out for 10 or 20 hours when they really only have enough content to sustain two hours. Hmm, a new theory to consider.

12 thoughts on “20th Century Boys

  1. Actually the Siren movie has a complete new storyline and only has a few minor things in common with the second game. The movie is average though…

    Haven’t you started to play Siren 2 a long time ago? What happened to that?

  2. If you really want a complete, nothing-changed, absolutely-faithful-book-to-film adaptation, go look at Rosemary’s Baby.

  3. i’d been interested in this film for a long time , haven’t read the manga though.

    I wonder how the action scenes from Clock Tower Film & Fatal Frame Film will turn out.But i’m guessing it’d look more like a slasher flick for Clock Tower :>

  4. http://www.sikflick.blogspot.com
    I was really one of the only fans of the Silent Hill Movie. I just thought it recreated the essence of the game in an good way. Yes, I still have problems with some of its writing,and acting but its the best video game adaption to date in my eyes. Well… If we count RE:Degeneration, that is my pick for best game adaption, as I thought that was an excellent film and could even stand on its own as part of the series.

    But 20th century boys sounds very, very cool.

  5. As pococrante said, the Siren film is a new story told with different characters.
    It wasn’t very good in my opinion, but you might like it more than I did.

    Recently I watched a few of the Harry Potter films, and I must say that those adaptations are very good.
    At least, the first 3 are.. from there it gets a little messy.

    I haven’t read much manga, but as far as video game adaptations to film go, I’d say that Silent Hill
    did the best job so far.

  6. in the last paragraph, when you said “maybe the reason that game stories suck so much”, were you meaning just “in general”? if not, i’d disagree strongly, as there have been some games with quite impressive stories imo… just, they tend to be in the minority. (sorry, i cant imagine you *didnt* mean “in general,” though, judging from some other stuff about games i’ve seen you say… right?)

    if you DID mean “in general,” then i think you’re on to something there, concerning a story which is meant to be told shortly being over-extended.

  7. > feighnt

    Like you said, games with good stories are by far a tiny minority when compared to the whole. So yeah, I meant that generally, the vast majority of game stories suck. And maybe that’s because they really want to be films? Or, just as likely, they are just really badly written.

  8. Resident Evil was not a dreadful film. Sure as a horror piece it was limited not particulary faithful to the setting of the original game (though i would argue that some key elements survived).

    As a horror action movie, i thought it did a reasonably good job of translating some of the elements that made the game so charming. but thats it – the game was charming and (in)elegent in its approach, but the film did maintain the isolation of the heroine (in a mental rather than literal capacity) and it did maintain the seige mentality of the game.

    Plus, my mum loved the movie. thats gotta count for something.

  9. ah, thanks for the clarification, Chris – i figured that’s what you meant, was just making sure.

    and, yeah, again, i think you’re definitely on to something, that at least some games are trying to be over-extended films… generally, there’s far too much influence of the film industry on video games, and people have always held movies to be a higher art than games (which is odd to me, at least as far as *potential* goes – the potential of what video games can do is certainly not inferior, but quite *different* to what film does well). just look at how, whenever a company makes a game someone likes, one of the first things to pop up is “imagine how great this would be if it were a movie!”

    when game-makers forget that they’re making a video game, *not* a movie, definite problems surface. terrible writing still plagues many games, but there’s likely two reasons – until recently, games havent been a big-budget thing, and havent had the relative attention and the *growing* (though not complete) amount of respect they’re gaining today. so, subsequently, the writers tended to be people who knew a lot about programming… and not necessarily very much about *writing*. so your typical game would end up being on the literary level of a fan-fic. on the other hand, as the medium gets more expensive, and they start to go and hire better known writers who’ve dealt with other mediums, the problem is that many of these writers, i fear, just dont understand the differences between games and whatever medium they write for, and either they dont take the endevour seriously enough to make a properly written story/characters/etc… or they take it seriously enough, but write in ways which were overly-ambitious or just unsuited to what the game was doing, and large chunks end up getting cut or modified in an unsatisfying way.

    or, such is my *guess*, anyway.

  10. Yeah, video games usually have terrible stories. You know, the whole “games as art” theory is kind of misleading on this point… what kind of art? Some games are trying to be 15 min. interactive paintings, some are trying to be 8-9 hour movies (which stretches the plot for way too long) and almost no games try to be literature.

    Well, the only example I can think of is Pathologic and it’s definitely in my top 5 horror games of all time… but it’s on PC. It’s probably the best game ever written but it’s been horribly massacred from Russian to English, so I guess it’s hard to tell. Anyway, it’s not part of your quest but you absolutely must try it to call yourself a survival-horror expert. 😉

  11. Hi there,

    Been following this site for a while… good work!

    Now, 20th Century Boys has just come out in London, where I am studying. I decide not to read the book before I watch it. It turns out that I thought the film flowed really well and I could follow it very much. I then read the manga after it and understood more, but I don’t think it was necessary to enjoy it. It is fast paced film but it is good.

    Anyway, I will be returning to Japan soon so I can see the second part! I cannot wait!

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