No spoilers in this post.
I wish I could honestly say that there was no genre which I didn’t enjoy, but that is sadly not true. There are two genres that I am not a big fan of: political stories and mystery thrillers. It’s not that I outright dislike these genres – there are works from each of them that I enjoy, although none that have a chance of being one of my favorites. If I like them, it’s for reasons other than those that tie them to their genre. The reason that those two genres happen to be my least favorite is that I have a problem with what we call ‘plot’.
Anime has a clear reason for being my favorite medium of stories, and it is that anime has the most variety of ‘elements’ that go into it. I have a ranking scale for anime which goes like this – [((Story/10 X1 ) + (Characters/10 X2.5) + (Audio/Visual/10 X2.5) + (Meat/10 X2)) /8 (optional 1 or 2 bonus scores and division by 9 or 10 depending)] ‘Meat’ is basically a grade for directing, story-boarding, and other strange things that might separate an anime from others. What you’ll get from this grading scale is that ‘Story’ only accounts for 1/8 of what I look for in an anime. It’s all about the other elements.
For manga, my grading scale is [Story X1.5 + Characters X2.5 + Art X2.5 /6.5]. The reason that story gets a higher grade in manga is that manga has fewer total elements to consider. Whereas an anime has countless things accounted for in the ‘audio/visual’ and ‘meat’ categories, a manga is just simply those three. I imagine that in a novel review I’d just have [Story X1 + Characters X1 + I guess prose X1] But you get my point.
So what’s my beef with plot? Well, you’ve heard the phrase – it’s all been done before. I’ve seen enough anime and read enough manga that I can confidently say there is no such thing as a plot I haven’t seen before, in whatever form. It is impossible to come up with a plot that has never been done before – that is the law of creation.
The thing that prompted me to bring all of this up is the manga I just finished, 20th Century Boys, a 24-volume opus by the legendary Naoki Urusawa, author of Monster, Pluto, Yawara, etc. 20th Century Boys is certainly worth reading – I recommend it – but I also found it extremely disappointing, simply because it did what I never want to see a story do – it let ‘plot’ become the center of the story.
Early on, I was really enjoying 20th Century Boys as it opened up. The premise is genius – an evil cult springs up and begins to take over the world, based on plans that were dreamed up by a bunch of kids in the 70s, now adults, who are the only ones that can stop the terror that may devour the world. Surely, this is quite original, as far as ‘being original’ is possible. However, no matter how imaginative it is, the fact that remains that it is a mystery thriller story. No matter what trappings it is filtered through, it’s still not unlike something I’ve read before. Since I haven’t read that many manga mystery thrillers, I’ll just have to compare it to Death Note, which I have read. My problems with both manga are the same.
The mystery thriller genre is all about ‘suspense’ and ‘reveal’. There is a buildup, and then suddenly a major event happens, and it’s a shock! I can’t believe that was the truth! When you read it, it is masterful. The first time I read Death Note, my heart would thunderously pound at the major reveals and shocking moments! 20th Century Boys took the shock to the next level with it’s crazy-ass plot! But what happens when you re-read Death Note?
I own the manga, so of course I’ve tried. The thing is, the setup for each reveal is now boring. I feel like ‘I know what is going to happen, so I don’t want to read several chapters of buildup.’ I begin to realize that Death Note without suspense doesn’t amount to much. It doesn’t have anything that compels me to pick it up again and re-tread all that set-up dialog again. I wanted hard for 20th Century Boys to dodge this bullet, because it showed so much potential.
There are some parts of 20th Century Boys that were definitively my favorites, and they were each time wherein a new, vitally important character was being introduced. When Otcho first appears, there are a ton of chapters about his story and his exploits in the Thai underworld which were totally awesome. Later, Kanna is introduced, and we see all kinds of cool stories about her amazing life in the hell that becomes the Kabuki district. Then there’s the introductions of Kiyoko and the manga-ka – all of these parts are about excellent character development, and what’s more, they give a meaning to the suspense.
I become desperate for Otcho to take down a bad guy, or for Kanna to win the ultimate bet, or for manga-ka to escape from prison, because I have been made to care about them so strongly, and I get tense and sweat when the action happens. All of these parts are in the first half or so of the 24-volume series – and from then on it went downhill for me, simply because the plot overtook the characters.
Naoki Urusawa is no doubt an excellent artist, but his art doesn’t have much in the way of ‘visual style.’ His art is a proponent to the story. It’s great that he can draw distinct, emotive characters, but they are the embodiments of their significance to the story. The world that he pens is all in the name of telling the story effectively, but there’s nothing more to it. Not like my recently-appointed all-time favorite manga Akira, for instance. Katsuhiro Otomo has such a style that at a mere glance, you can tell that it is his work. He creates a world with a life it’s own – a world that breathes, that shows that it’s existed long before the story began, and will continue to exist long after the story ends. His character designs not only have personality, but are also completely recognizable. To put what I mean simply, Maruo from 20th Century Boys is ‘the fat guy with hard luck but a heart of gold.’ Tetsuo from Akira is simply ‘Tetsuo.’ So understand that I think that 20th Century Boys has excellent artwork, but it cannot rely on it. If I took away the plot, I would not still have the art to go by. I could enjoy an artbook of Katsuhiro Otomo’s work, while Naoki Urusawa’s artwork is only good as an extension of the story.
According to my grading scale, what I want from a manga has a bit to do with plot, a lot to do with art, and a lot to do with characters. If the art isn’t enough to sell me on the series, then the characters are now the most important thing.
Halfway through 20th Century Boys, the plot expositions and reveals go crazy. The character count keeps increasing, but new characters, even the ones who seem really interesting, aren’t given time to show their stuff. They may get a moment of glory briefly, and then fade into obscurity (the tattooed priests or the young glasses-wearing girl come to mind). Because so many characters are appearing and so many plot threads show up, things become jumbled. There are parts where many things seem to be happening, only for a major event to automatically tie-off multiple plot threads all at once. Because the plot always must continue, then many of the actions taken by characters become pointless. It doesn’t matter if a whole volume is spent gathering the information to shut down ‘Enemy plot A’ because ‘Enemy plot B’ is right around the corner. Everything that has happened before will always become meaningless in the face of the next adversary. The first time a character appears, then they would have been developed up until their point of becoming a part of the flow of events, but then the old characters don’t have a part to play. ‘Enemy plan Y’ isn’t going to make the 22 characters who are already fighting on the side of justice learn anything new about the world or themselves – they are already accustomed to this. At some point, it feels like the characters are just ‘going through the motions’. Honestly, the biggest suspension of belief for me in the story was that after so many years the story takes place in, the characters managed to keep the same mindset all the time.
By the end of 20th Century Boys, as it transitioned into 21st Century Boys for the last 2 volumes, I was just not interested anymore. I just wanted to see it all end, so that the characters could do something new. I was tired of the same rehashed sentiments and speeches – when would it end, so that the characters could move on with their lives? And when it ended, not to spoil anything, it mostly ended with the plot. We don’t get a bunch of stories on how each character would live on into the future and deal with the new world, but just some brief ‘they’re still alive’ sort of moments.
What this said to me was that the characters weren’t supposed to be the real meat of the story. It said to me that the characters existed because they were necessary to the plot, and not because they lived and functioned as people beyond the story. What mattered to me about Kanna was her awesome attitude, her problem-solving instincts, her ubiquitous sense of justice that was so much fun to watch. These things are shown to us because one day, Kanna will have to use each of these things to help her in various situations to further the plot, and as soon as she has done so, she is no longer important. Now it’s up to someone else to use the things we’ve learned to play out their role. Systematically, the plot is laid out this way.
Because the premise is interesting, and the characters were interesting at times, and the art was still good if not amazing, I wanted to really love 20th Century Boys. When I was about halfway through I thought ‘this will probably make it into my top 10 manga’ but when those things all became secondary to an increasingly heavy-handed and obtuse plot, I just gave up. 20th Century Boys could have either been half as long, with fewer incessant plot twists to tie the story up nicely and with less excess limbs, or been twice as long and taken time to honestly flesh out and develop the characters, and I would have loved it. Instead, it was one of the most disappointing things I think I’ve ever read.
And just in case you’re curious – Story – 7.5, Characters – 7, Art – 8. If those still seem like great scores for something so disappointing, just know that halfway through the story, I might have been prepared for something like ’10, 9, 8′, and that I haven’t read very many things that disappointed me.