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When Endo Kenji was a kid, he and his friends had a clubhouse in the middle of a grassy field, where they played an elaborate let's-pretend scenario in which they were heroes who prevented a worldwide holocaust involving germ warfare, laser guns, and giant robots. Later on, he dreamed of becoming a rock star. Now that Kenji is grown, his life revolves around his dreary job managing a chain convenience store - which used to be his family's liquor store - and his beloved infant niece Kanna, who was abandoned to Kenji and his mother by his older sister Kuriko. But when Kenji hears of the mysterious death of his childhood friend "Donkey" - who had been leading a happy life with a wife, child, and enjoyable job as a science teacher - he discovers that the club's childhood daydreams are becoming real-life nightmares.

Who is the mysterious cult figure known only as "Friend," and how is it that he is using the gang's special symbol as the badge of his movement? Why are leaders of other cults dying mysteriously? What happened to Otcho, another club member, who went abroad to work and disappeared in Thailand? How can world events be following their childhood game so closely? As Kenji gets deeper into the mystery, he discovers that even someone leading a life as uninspiring as his still has a lot to lose.

The mystery itself is engrossing, and the series seems to be developing the team/family themes that I need in fiction. There is a certain amount of physically repulsive stuff depicted as a result of the germ warfare incidents, but the gross-out level is nowhere near the level of, say Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. The lead cast is mainly male at this point, but Kenji's old friend Yukiiji, who as a girl used to beat up bullies much larger than herself and who now works as a customs official (with a massively goofy sniffer dog), is a strong character (although I wonder when we're going to see her again), and Kuriko has several poignant scenes in flashback.

The artwork is very good - much less stylized than that of many manga, yet not as realistic as that of Vagabond or Blade of the Immortal.

 

20th Century Boys, vols. 1-4 (review)

The mangaka can really tug your heartstrings at the most unexpected moments. Among the scenes that really worked for me are Kenji's defiance of the convenience store franchise inspector over Kanna's presence at the store, the veteran workaholic police detective who is getting too close to Friend and is murdered as a result - on his way to his grandson's birthday party, and two of Otcho's scenes in Thailand: his attempted rescue of May and its aftermath, and his destruction of the drug factory.

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