Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Naoki Urasawa and the importance of the ending

About 6 months ago, I had exhausted the graphic novel selection at the Ames Public Library, and moved one aisle over and started in on the manga. I don't know very much about manga, so I was mostly just picking out series that:

a) Had a cool cover
b) Had nothing to do with samurai
c) Did not have an unreadably large number of volumes
d) Actually had the first volume on the shelf

By following these standards, I came upon Volume 1 of 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa, which looked something like this:

Described itself like this:
Failed rock musician Kenji's memories of his past come rushing back when one of his childhood friends mysteriously commits suicide. Could this new death be related to the rise of a bizarre new cult that's been implicated in several other murders and disappearances? Determined to dig deeper, Kenji reunites with some of his old buddies in the hope of learning the truth behind it all.

Humanity, having faced extinction at the end of the 20th century, would not have entered the new millennium if it weren't for them. In 1969, during their youth, they created a symbol. In 1997, as the coming disaster slowly starts to unfold, that symbol returns. This is the story of a gang of boys who try to save the world.

And only had 6 volumes on the shelf (I later found out there were 24 total).

Six months later, I have finished 20th Century Boys as well as PLUTO and Monster, two of Urasawa's other mangas.

Urasawa is not afraid of scale. That is, in all three of the mangas I have read, his character base has been no less than 50, the stories have taken place anywhere between Japan, Germany, and America, and the villains have settled for no motive less than the destruction of the entire world.

Impressive stuff.

He has the art of the cliffhanger down to a degree of perfection probably even beyond LOST.

But cliffhangers leave questions, and questions need answers.

While LOST was famous for leaving it's viewers with a boatload of questions, the most important being "Did the creators of this show have this all planned from the beginning, or are they flying forward by the seat of their pants at this point?" Ok, I'm sure not everyone worded the question this way, but ask any LOST fan and this question will not seem unfamiliar to them.

I made the mistake of believing that every single thing that happened on that show was planned long before they ever started filming. I now know that that very idea is ridiculous, but the show was very convincing in the way it connected things early on. I expected the series finale to be perfection--no more questions, no loose ends, everything would make sense in a way that would leave me thinking "I can't believe I hadn't thought of that!" Needless to say, it didn't quite live up to that standard.

It was simply good enough.

I believe that Urasawa's work suffers from the same "High Standards = Inevitable Disappointment" I discovered with LOST.

But, no matter how good or bad an ending is, it doesn't change the fact that I was desperately visiting the library or rental store every couple of days for the next book or dvd. In reality, it is maybe only 1 or 2 bad episodes or bad chapters among the hundreds of others that convinced you along the way that this series worth the time you were putting into it.

How much weight does the ending carry in the overall quality of a work?


  1. Potentially quite a bit, but one has to be careful in evaluating endings. A lot of people approach an ending primarily in terms of how satisfying they think it is and how much entertainment value it has. I think the most important aspect is actually its thematic continuity with the work.

    On that count, I actually hold the ending of Urasawa's three series in fairly high regard.

    Monster's final page not to mention the final repetition that sets the stage for it is pretty much perfect.

    20th/21st Century Boys suffered from too many false endings, but the ending itself comes full circle as well, delving even further into the question of memory that drives the series. The third film does a very good job bringing out the full weight of the ending slightly better than the manga, probably because 21st Century Boys was written after Urasawa had to take a yearlong break to recover two dislocated shoulders and was trying to regain the thread.

  2. Thanks for the reply!

    I think that I agree with what you are saying.

    First of all, I believe that entertainment doesn't play a very large part at all in determining the quality of a work that is actually worth discussing the quality of, so I agree with your comment on the thematic continuity.

    I haven't seen the 20th Century Boys films, but I think that even Urasawa agreed that 20th Century Boys was not enough of an ending, which is why he tacked on 21st Century Boys, which seemed very much, well tacked on.

    I also agree about the final pages of Monster. My problem comes mostly from feeling that Johan's motive seemed to fall apart in the last book, as if the series was rushed or kind of lost its direction.

    And really, PLUTO, has a pretty solid ending. The only complaint I have is all the identity issues between the villain robot and the scientist who made him. There is too much "You are that guy!" "No, I'm this guy!" and their is literally a question and answer session with Atom in order to explain all the stuff that Gesicht almost figured out.

  3. 21st Century Boys was never a tacked on ending. The only reason it's a seperate entity is because of the dislocated shoulders. Urasawa took a yearlong break at Vol 22, the final volume of 20th Century Boys, not because he had no ending, but because he couldn't draw the ending owing to his severe shoulder injuries. If it felt tacked on it was because in that year between Urasawa probably lost the thread of the story not because Urasawa changed his mind and came back to tack a new ending on.

    I don't think Johan's motive fell apart. Quite the opposite. Are you willing to discuss in more detail or would you prefer to keep the comments spoiler free?

    Pluto's ending I agree was solid, I just didn't think it resonated quite as well. And unlike 20th Century Boys and Monster, the requisite identity ambiguity didn't seem to tie in thematically (even though I like that kind of thing a lot).

  4. I'd like to here what you have to say about Monster. I'm hoping I can remember enough about the particular details leading up to and making up the ending in order to properly discuss it.