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Manga meets movies meets rock 'n' roll
Trying to adapt a well-loved Manga story to the silver screen is somewhat trickier than it might seem
By Alice Davis
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
Page 17
2008-10-17 01:21 AM
Twentieth Century Boys, adapted from the phenomenal comics of manga master Naoki Urasawa, is brought to life on the big screen this weekend. With an intricate storyline spanning half a century and a backdrop that stretches across the entire planet, many doubted the feasibility of a Twentieth Century Boys film adaptation. But director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, helped by creator Urasawa, succeeded in making the impossible possible with a starry cast and a glittering budget.

The story begins in a hope-filled 1969. Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) and his schoolfriends Otcho (Etsushi Toyokawa) and Yukiji (Takako Tokiwa) secretly write a tale in which they imagine themselves fighting villains who seek to bring the world to an end. They call their tale the Book of Prophecy.

It's years later when people around Kenji begin to disappear. A religious cult emerges, led by the mysterious Friend. As Kenji begins to realize that the events exactly mirror those of his childhood Prophecy, this Friend's intention can only be to bring about the dark future the schoolmates had foretold.

On December 31, 2000, the prophesied day of man's demise, a terror takes to the streets of Tokyo that threatens to destroy mankind... Will humans live to see the 21st Century? Or will the virus-spitting, earth-shattering, atomic-powered Gigantic Robot annihilate us all...?

Were you familiar with the original manga?

I had read it and found it thoroughly entertaining. I can identify with many elements of the story because I come from the same generation as the characters. The way kids played back then and the way they were excited by new music... The first electric guitar Kenji ever owned was the yellow Greco Telecaster given to him by his sister. He plays it as an adult to put him back in the mindscape of his youth. It's the same guitar as my very first guitar!

Did you have a credo when you made this movie?

To be the Original Manga Fundamentalist! The manga was so good that I figured I'd be better off duplicating it rather than changing anything. I want you to watch the movie with the manga in your hand for comparison. I guess you can't because it's too dark in the cinema (laughs). I used manga pages as storyboards and even duplicated the camera angles of each frame. We selected scenes from the manga and photocopied the pages. The crew carried those pages around to know what kind of shots we wanted for the scene.

When I was a kid, there was a manga magazine called Boken-O (Adventure King) and at one time it had a free attachment that came with it. It was called "The Moving Monsters." It was really just monsters drawn on a sheet of paper but you could create the illusion that the monsters were moving with your hands. It was such a low-tech gimmick but breathtaking. I was aiming at a similar kind of surprise with 20th Century Boys, the movie.

Your movies are known for their unique style and off-beat humor. Did you have to restrain yourself in this film?

I'm doing my thing, too. But these shots get in the way in the editing room (laughs). The world woven in the original manga on which the whole movie is based on is like an impenetrable fortress. Just changing a little thing may result in a disastrous misdirection. The whole story is tightly spun like an intricate web. For example, if a finger in the manga was pointing this way, it has to point the same way in the movie. Or the meaning of the action might change. So I had to diligently follow the manga. The original manga is very cinematic but manga language is different from movie language so I had to sometimes change things to make it more cinematic.

The original story has an undercurrent of the Rock spirit. Is it something you feel close to?

The underlying theme of this movie is Rock. It's a Rock'n'Roll movie in disguise. I put much energy in the FRIEND's Concert scene and the scenes in which Kenji plays his guitar. The story revolves around a man who's rock-star dream never took off. A man who is living a disillusioned life. He's not sure which way he should go. He soon remembers what used to fuel his passion.

The film deals with many other cultural elements.

There are so many sub-themes. It deals with the theme of lost childhood and a loss of innocence in a manner similar to the movie, Stand By Me. It examines Tokyo around the turn of the century. It forecasts the future to come and it looks back at the past, that of the 70s. Each element makes a good movie by itself. The original manga is drawn frame by frame and reflects a tremendous, fantastic imagination. It's like a tapestry mural on an epic scale. I wanted to pay homage to the original manga and shoot the movie with as much imagination as I could.

So much happens in the first film of the triology. What are your thoughts on that?

The first film is inconclusive but without it, there would be no second or third film. The first cut of the first film came at about 2 hours and 50 minutes. It was edited down to its barest minimum and at this stage it's about 2 hours and 22 minutes. It's a trilogy with a monstrous budget and it became also monstrous in length.

What was your response to such a huge budget?

I figured that I'd never have another chance to be involved in such a big project. So I decided to make the best of it and have as much fun as I could with this huge undertaking.

How about the star cast?

I remember Rob Reiner commenting on his experience directing The Bucket List. He said he was very satisfied with the performances of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I feel just the same. But I also felt very tense because there were always new actors to deal with every day

How do you feel about 20th Century Boy, the T.Rex song?

T.Rex was responsible for the entire genre of glam rock and I think they were like fantastic flowers that could have only bloomed in those days.

How significant is the 20th Century to you?

It's very important... How important? About 90% of me is made of it!

Naoki Urasawa, Original Manga Artist/Screenwriter

What inspired you to create the story of 20th Century Boys?

I had an idea for a manga that was based on some mysterious symbol. I was in the bath on the day I finished drawing Happy! (a series Urasawa drew before 20th]) and a passage of a speech flashed in my head. It goes, "Without them we wouldn't have lived to see the 21st Century. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 20th Century Boys!" I faxed the idea to the [Big Comic Spirits] editor right away. The memory of playing a T.Rex song, 20th Century Boy on the P.A. at my junior high school also came back to me. The episode of Kenji playing T.Rex is based on my own experience.

What happened when you played T.Rex on the P.A.?

Like I drew in the manga, "Nothing changed(laughs)." In those days the only music you'd hear on the school P.A. would be some mellow easy listening stuff. I thought something hard as T.Rex would be revolutionary... But I guess many kids had similar experiences. Shiro Sano who plays both Yanbo and Mabo, told me that he thought it was about him when he read that scene.

You once said in an interview that you wanted to examine the 20th Century with your manga.

Let me elaborate on that. What I meant was that history is a chain reaction of events and anything we have now is the outcome of what happened in the past. I wanted the readers to have that notion because if we ignore what connects past and present and only look at a fragment, we miss something important. After the war, something new started in our culture. Some things matured and some things decayed, so to speak. I thought it would be important to re-examine those things.

As a screenwriter, what elements did you want to keep in the adaptation?

The sense of strangeness the original manga has. "What's going on?" is often the most important reaction to 20th Century Boys. If the obscurity was lost in adaptation, it would be one dimensional. I wanted to keep it multi-dimensional. I have faith in the way Director Tsutsumi handled the movie.

The director's has said his intention was to perfectly duplicate your manga on the screen...

It's kind of funny that one of the most original directors around is trying to duplicate a manga. And when I saw the footage, I thought it was perfectly his movie(laughs).

What do you hope for the movie adaptation?

It's a trilogy with a big, 6 billion yen budget. It sounds like a big event and a grand saga. But really, it's a very personal story. In other words, we can say that anybody's life can be turned into a grand saga. I hope that the movie becomes something that reaches the very private microcosm of the audience.

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