Part one of a trilogy and Japan’s most expensive production to date, 20th-Century Boys (20-seiki shônen) (d.Tsutsumi Yukihiko) is a cheerful doomsday movie, adapted from a manga, and concerning a group of 30-something elementary school friends whose childhood “Book of Prophecies” looks set to come true in the hands of a mysterious cult leader with political aspirations, clad in a sinister monkey mask and calling himself “Friend”. Kenji, the author of the “prophecies” is an ex-rock star loser kwik-e-mart clerk and guardian of his vanished sister’s daughter Kanna who, it turns out, is some sort of “chosen one”.
Kenji’s childhood dream that his music will some day “save the world” remains unrealised, despite a nice scene of him wailing on his long-untouched guitar and his outrage at the ludicrous band at a Friend rally (I thought they were pretty cool) – more of that perhaps in future installments; but things bustle along nicely as he and friends play the detective game of trying to recall the details of their childhood and work out what is likely to happen, getting framed as terrorists and ultimately confronting a virus-spewing giant robot. Flitting between the bowels of a prison ship in 2015 (which does diffuse some of the millennial doomsday suspense), the late 60s and the final days of the 20th century, the film is constructed with swift-moving skill and likable characters (I’m a sucker for tough pretty Japanese girls), although the sinister aspect of the games of childhood taken seriously in the adult world is not as dark as it might be. It ends with a terrific, if unnecessarily evocative, explosion across the city which looks as though it’s done for absolutely everyone, but a post-credits teaser shows several of the characters surviving into old age, a now-teenaged Kanna taking centre stage and Friend on his way to becoming God. I very much look forward to it.
In a different register, K-20: Legend of the Mask (K-20: Kaijin niju menso den) (d.Sato Shimako) is another fantastical adventure movie from Japan. Set in a 1949 where WWII never took place it is firmly western in tone, with echoes of the derring adventure stories of the late Victorian era and a love of mechanical gadgetry, updated to a period that can realistically accommodate electromagnetic wave photography and other black-box wonders. Master of disguise K-20 is described in the opening captions as a sort of Robin Hood in the strictly class-divided fictional city of Teito, although the character is solidly presented until the very end as a shadowy villain intent on domination of some kind. Mildly effeminate detective Baron Akechi and his androgynous teenage assistant are perpetually on his trail; on the other side of the tracks, circus acrobat Heikichi is set up and mistaken for the villain and must go into hiding in the ghetto, where the “Thieves’ Handbooks” teach him the necessary skills to take on the unstoppable baddy.
The great gizmo is a giant Tesla wireless energy transmitter, hidden by its maker for fear of its awesome destructive powers, and much gadget-based fun is had along the way to locating its whereabouts through a series of arcane clues. Heikichi is a little bland and Akechi a little arch; the class issues are used for window-dressing and plot points rather than social critique; and evenness of tone and character are frequently sacrificed for comic effect. But there’s a funny feisty duchess helping out, and a constantly imaginative inventiveness to the set-pieces and the gadgets themselves, and even some pretty good parkour before the fact. Some of this is spoiled by overly apparent digital assistance, and the climactic battle looks pathetically like a video game; if the movie never quite takes flight (and culminates in a decidedly unstartling revelation) it rolls along at an enjoyable pace and by and large the effects and the physical art direction work to create a dense, lived-in mix of period and futuristic design that chimes perfectly with the Boy’s Own adventures and characters.
Briefly noted: The Invocation (d. Emmanuel Itier) is, apparently, not up for review as it’s unfinished and looking for distribution. Neither sounds like a good reason to me, and smacks of fear of critical mauling from those not aligned with what might be broadly termed New Age sensibilities. So consider this more a notice for future consideration than a review. It is a globe-trotting documentary about God, taking in talking heads from a wide-range of religions and scientific disciplines, the most astute of which are Deepak Chopra, Stewart Copeland and a lady hermit from California. There’s plenty of food for thought, and despite a great deal of wooliness from many of the participants, the film-makers have less to fear than one might imagine.
I expected it to be propaganda but (in its present form) it in fact preaches solidly to the converted (one would be barely aware that such a thing as atheism exists); the “We” not “I” agenda is explicitly a call for world peace based on the notion that God is everywhere and in everything and that by realising this unity, intolerance, war and prejudice will become things of the past. Fair enough, but I was consistently reminded of Bill Burroughs’ “One-God Universe” wherein the all-knowing, all-powerful God can do nothing, since the act of doing presupposes opposition, and therefore energy must be created through the friction of death, war and disease. That and the Third Man speech about 500 years of peace in Switzerland producing only the cuckoo clock (which originated in Bavaria in any case). I am by no means in opposition to world peace, but I wonder if, unpleasant and painful as it may be, taking the rough with the smooth isn’t necessary for growth and progress, rather than the even stasis of an idealistic state of perfect harmony. Perhaps someone can tell me.