Kenji Endo (Toshiaki Karasawa) used to want to be a rock star, in fact when he was at school back in the seventies he believed that rock music could change the world, an item of faith that his life since had failed to play out, particularly when his own band didn't go as well as he had hoped. Now, in the year 1997, he is stuck in a dead end job working in a convenience store with his mother, having to look after hhis infant niece Kanna, and currently getting an earful of hassle from his boss who doesn't think he's drumming up enough customers. But something in Kenji's childhood means that he has a destiny to fulfil - if only he could remember...
20th Century Boys was the first in a trilogy based on a manga that in turn was apparently inspired by the T-Rex song of the same name, although how they managed to string out this convoluted plot from a three minute pop song is not entirely clear. Not to worry, it doesn't matter in the great scheme of the story, which takes a few pages out of Stephen King's horror tome It in showing how the past and future are linked by having sequences where the child versions of the characters influence the adults. It skips forward and backward in time, all leading up to the threat of an apocalypse in the year 2000.
One nice thing about this is that it gets the date of the millennium correct, therefore the villain's plans will come into effect at midnight as the year 2000 turns into the year 2001, so pedants will be satisfied. These films are a pretty big deal in Japan, and this first one ends, as so many of this country's sci-fi cinema does, with a giant menace to the land, in this case a huge robot which squirts a spray of instantly deadly disease over anyone unlucky enough to get in its way. The reason for this is not wholly clear, but it is something to do with a religious cult that has taken hold and are planning to take political power; they are led by a masked man known only as Friend.
Presumably this has more resonance in Japan than elsewhere considering the notorious subway attacks courtesy of the Aum Shinrikyo followers in 1995, which have intriguing echoes in the plot of this, although they go far more to extremes in their fears here. Although that real life cult have renounced violence and changed their name, in 20th Century Boys there's a large measure of paranoia about groups such as these, summed up in a fictional assembly of power-hungry but outwardly peaceful campaigners who are actually beginning to pull the strings behind the scenes, even getting the police on their side.
All of which is bad news for Kenji's freedom fighters, who can't help but notice that this cult has adopted their old gang symbol from when they were children, a pointing finger with two concentric eyes, which makes them realise that Friend must be someone they knew back then, yet curiously not one can recall who he was. Eventually, the old gang reunite, minus a couple of members who have died in mysterious circumstances, and so they become a cell dedicated to the overthrow of the cult, even though the cult has practically taken over and their efforts look futile. The trouble is, with a naturally episodic tale such as this, you're going to be left with more questions than answers, and this does feel like an awful lot of buildup for a big plotline that we have yet to see, but it is well made even if the climactic cliffhangers might have you shrugging your shoulders. Music by Ryomei Shirai.