I never read 20th Century Boys until this year, but in some ways, I’m glad I waited this long.
20th Century Boys in 2021
A manga by the award-winning author Urasawa Naoki, 20th Century Boys (published from 1999 to 2006) is a decades-spanning mystery about a man named Endo Kenji and his childhood friends, whose innocent elementary school antics are resurfacing in bizarre and dangerous ways. A Book of Prophecy they wrote around 1970 with far-fetched doomsday predictions about plagues that seem to be coming true, and at the heart of this conspiracy is an enigmatic and politically powerful cult leader known as the Friend. But while the Friend’s identity is unknown to all, there’s a hint that Kenji should know who he is: the Friend’s symbol is exactly the same as one Kenji and his friends came up with when they were kids.
Although conspiracies, cults of personality, and apocalyptic disease are not that unusual in fiction, these elements resonate particularly strongly in 2021. Between QAnon, authoritarians such as Bolsonaro and Trump, and then COVID-19, there are a lot of parallels between what happens in 20th Century Boys and what has transpired in reality. There’s a certain poetic element to a series revolving around The Book of Prophecy seeming to tell the future in itself, but whatever farseeing power it might have possessed are less interesting to reflect on than its portrayals of human behavior. What struck at my core from reading 20th Century Boys was not merely the presence of all these current dangers, but the all-too-real psychological reactions we’ve seen actually take place in the world.
QAnon vs. the Friendship and Democracy Party
One vital difference between QAnon and The Book of Prophecy is that the former has not been substantiated in any way, whereas the latter’s predictions are actively made true through the machinations of the Friendship and Democracy Party led by the Friend. Regardless of actual success rate, however, the two bear some fundamental similarities. In one scene in 20th Century Boys, the character Manjome Inshu recalls how he came to know and support the Friend. Manjome, who has a history of being a snake-oil salesman, is one of the people responsible for giving the Friend his messiah-like aura to his followers. At one point, they use a rope and pulley to make the Friend seem like he’s levitating—a flimsy trick that could have been undone by a bit of swaying. However, not only does the audience buy it hook, line, and sinker; even one of the assistants who literally helped hoist the Friend up by rope starts to believe the man can fly. Manjome, thinking to himself, comes to a realization: the people are just looking for something to believe in. Like QAnon, the Friend’s following is not about logic, rationality, or even trying to understand the world through one’s emotions. It’s working backwards from a conclusion because of a particular desire to see the world a certain way, and to feel like one has a part in its transformation.
Donald Trump vs. the Friend
When it comes to the Friend’s authoritarian nature and god complex, the commonalities between him and Trump stood out to me from the very beginning. However, when the Friend’s identity is finally revealed, their resemblance only gets stronger. The Friend, as suspected, was part of Kenji’s childhood circle, but one who viewed Kenji with utter disdain. The Friend—a boy obsessed with anime, manga, and other children’s entertainment of the time—accrued knowledge, things, and experiences as a way to impress his classmates. Yet, it was Kenji who seemed to capture the attention of the other kids. The Friend was so hellbent on one-upping Kenji that, when a planned trip to the 1970 World Expo in Osaka fell through, he decided to just lie and fabricate journal entries for school as if he had actually attended the event. The wounds of failure remain so open and painful to the Friend that even in the mythos provided to his followers, it’s canon that the Friend Definitely 100% Attended the Osaka Expo and It Was Amazing.
Other clues point to a man with the mind and maturity of a little boy as the mastermind. Many of the hints about who he really is require knowledge of his childhood hobbies because they inevitably reflect what the Friend values. In this sense, 20th Century Boys is somewhat like Ready Player One, which also plays on the idea of pop culture trivia being key to everything, though in the case of 20th Century Boys there’s no Gary Stu power-fantasy protagonist. Also, prior to the big identity reveal, one character manages to get a close look at the Friend and is able to sketch his appearance from memory. When drawing the Friend, the character remarks that even though the Friend is clearly not a child, his face looks as if the man has never aged emotionally—a description that also seems to get ascribed to Trump.
In Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Dangerous Man, the author Mary L. Trump (a psychologist who’s also the niece of the former US president) explains that Trump is unable to let go of grievances. Every slight he’s ever felt sticks with him forever—as shown by an anecdote of how Donald’s older sister recalling a story of him getting a bowl of mashed potatoes dumped onto his head for being a bully still seems to hurt the man well into adulthood. He has spent a lifetime constantly trying to get others to believe that he’s the richest, the smartest, the handsomest, and the best person in the world, and even becoming the leader of the strongest nation on Earth wasn’t enough to placate that selfish desire. With the Friend, his being overshadowed by Kenji became a deep psychological scar, and he uses that motivation to reach a similar place. If you erased my memory of the publication history of 20th Century Boys and told me that the Friend is a reference to Trump, I would believe you. But that’s not the case, and what we’re left with, in retrospect, is a very accurate portrayal of how someone with the most vile qualities could win the hearts and minds of others and remain just as terrible.
COVID-19 vs. Bloody New Year’s Eve and Beyond
The spread of deadly disease is a recurring horror in 20th Century Boys, though in the manga’s case, it is a biological weapon utilized by the Friend to achieve his goals. I’m not going to get into much detail here, but I think the example I give is going to make it clear why 20th Century Boys ends up being a curiously ominous work when it comes to human psychology. In one scene, a scientist character is trying to make a colleague of hers—one who is responsible for developing new viruses for the Friend—understand at heart just how many people died from the virus they spread on “Bloody New Year’s Eve,” the name for the traumatic events of December 31, 2000. So what are these overwhelming casualties brought on by the virus? What is this horrifying statistic that defies human understanding?
That number was meant to shock and horrify when it was written. But COVID-19 has killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States, and it has taken the lives of nearly 4 million people worldwide. “150,000 deaths” was a pie-in-the-sky notion dreamed up by a manga author, and we in the real world now see that as the “early days,” when the infection rate hadn’t gotten so out of hand.
The trauma of the coronavirus is going to stick with us for a long time.
A Compelling Warning
There’s much more to 20th Century Boys than simply being prophetic, and it’s a superb manga in terms of art and storytelling. Nevertheless, the way its narrative relates to these difficult times makes it all the more powerful. What should have been a suspenseful piece of fiction with an examination of humanity now feels closer to a documentary with a foreboding warning of how easily the human mind can be warped by a diet of bad information. I hope we’re able to heed its messages.