Urasawa MMF: Well, I’m Fighting, No Matter What Happens: Music in Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys

20th Century Boys Kenji

Justin: There’s a lot of things that have been said about Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys in a bunch of circles most likely, starting from his way of suspense and his artwork, and to praise of the series as a whole. However, we’re not gonna talk about any of that. Ok, we still might praise it, but this is intended to be commentary on music in 20th Century Boys. If there wasn’t a clear example on the very first few pages of Chapter 1, well, we’re here to tell you it plays a major factor as the series shifts from one year to the next.

Warning: There are spoilers in this post!

Now, as I continued to learn more about Naoki Urasawa, whether it was through interviews and programs online, I ended up learning he had a major fascination with music. Not just any music though: it was classic rock music he liked. Of course, he was mostly drawing manga so you wouldn’t think he had any involvement in that, but inspired by Bob Dylan, a man who underwent numerous criticism during the folk and protest movements yet still sung despite it all, he went on with his manga career, despite some of the struggles that took place. In a way, Dylan may have been the basis for 20th Century Boys’s main character, Kenji. A failed rock guitarist, Kenji ends up running a family mart while taking care of his sister’s baby, Kanna. But throughout the series, he ends up playing a guitar — all at moments where something needs to change, instead of the general status quo. He’s not the only one that uses music to influence the story, as a few others do as well, at certain points. So I guess I pose this question to you three: what moment do you all have in mind that stands out in terms of how music played a role in 20th Century Boys?

Sweetpea: There’s one panel in the entire manga that I will instantly recall to mind whenever someone talks about Urasawa and music: When Kenji is driving across the desert towards the gates, singing “Gudalala Sudalala” at the top of his lungs. That’s really just a ‘POW’ moment for me. Pure awesome. It represents everything that the manga had been trying to convey in a single panel: that people can rise against authority – against evil – without violence and without having to hurt anybody. Just the power of love and music. Would Woodstock be an appropriate comparison? Because I think I’d consider it a one-man Woodstock. Kenji has been fighting evil this whole time and discovered the best way to do it was through music and the love and hope it inspires in people, and when he comes roaring out of the desert (the proverbial and literal wasteland), it’s his last and greatest hope. Definitely one of the greatest scenes in the manga.

Manjiorin: I think what struck me in terms of music was how it oppressed and freed people throughout the story. Haru Namio’s idol song for the Expo, perfectly crafted for popularity, felt downright oppressive, like something single-handedly created by the Friend to Kenji 20th Century Boyskeep people under his spell. Then there’s Kenji with his loud guitar and seemingly simple song about the journey home — the smells, the weather — that works its way into the people’s mind and inspires them to ultimately rise up again the Friend. People wanted something that was real — authentic — not the unsettlingly fake world that the Friend had forced them to live in. Keep in mind that it took more than a while for Kenji’s song to come through, but the fact that one voice and a few believers moved the hearts of otherwise docile and brainwashed people really struck me. Music is what kept Kanna going, Kenji going, and the people going all along.

AnimeEmily: The change that music brought in people, like Manjiorin brought up, is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of Urasawa’s manga in that you wouldn’t think such a seemingly simple song would grow to have such power and influence. One of my personal favorite scenes in the manga, which comes shortly after Sweetpea’s, really shows that concept at work. Shortly after entering the camp and labeled an alien, Kenji stands up to a police officer who threatens to, and ends up, shooting him. After getting up, Kenji walks towards the shaking officer saying, “I’m singing a song. And when someone is singing a song, don’t shoot them.” The officer collapses to his knees, looking thoroughly frightened, and doesn’t shoot again. Though I’m sure Kenji’s grungy appearance helped him to, essentially, sing the man down, what I find to be so amazing is how a few words strung together and sung to a tune managed to bring a man to his knees, as well as inspire the people in the camp to finally rebel against those who had been mistreating them. Even Chono, who had previously shied away from standing up against what he saw as injustice, took courage in Kenji’s words and used them to defy his superior, a gun in his face. Heck, even I felt inspired at times by the song that’s given thousands the courage and hope to defy the wrongs in their society, something that I find to be truly amazing.

Justin: I think the one thing as you talk about moments that stood out to you the most kind of speaks to how much development Urasawa manages to give each character, and how music plays a major role in that development. Even if it’s just a minor character, they manage to make an important impact that resonates with the reader. In my case, I think one that I liked that ended up becoming a major impact in 20th Century Boys was the broadcast of Kenji’s song via the radio. At the time, there was a major division after the friend basically took over the world, where Yoshitsune and Kanna had to go their separate ways and do things their way, and Otcho got himself hurt and couldn’t do anything. But thanks to two kids in Katsuo and Sanae, he managed to get himself back on his feet eventually, but not without learning of an alternate version of Kenji’s song. Because he learned of that song thanks to Sanae, that’s when Otcho knows someone’s playing it on the radio. He tries to use it to convince Kanna from sending her people to their deaths, but it almost fails. But in the end, he gets a signal, the new song plays, and this restores new hope into Kanna, who almost loses it. And you know who they have to thank? Some dude named Konchi, who we actually get his name of and his own importance to Kenji’s group as kids a few volumes later. It’s pretty interesting how it all ties together, and how even the more minor characters manage to not only advance the work, but manage to change themselves.

We’ve talked about how the characters grow and change with the music, but what is really fascinating is how the music itself doesn’t change, and how it has meaning beyond just the story implications. Do any of you have a particular song that sticks out and represents something more to you?

20th Century BoysSweetpea: When I said earlier that Kenji is a one-man Woodstock, I’m not lying. From the beginning, we know that Gudalala Sudalala is directly inspired by the famous rock artists and bands of the 60’s. American artists. Want to know what was happening in America in the 60’s? The Vietnam War. The Civil Rights movement. CHANGE. REBELLION. Going against the establishment. And in 20th Century Boys ‘Gudalala Sudalala’ is written as a direct response to the oppression and suppression of the government. Every generation is partially defined by its music, and Kenji taps into the spirit of the 60’s – the spirit that led people to stand up for their rights and fight against injustice. In the manga, during the 2000’s, and further into the future than that, the people hear that in his song and respond to it. It’s a direct echo of what inspired those original songs and why people still respond to those songs. The time might not have been ripe when Kenji originally played rock music in his school – no one needed rebellion or longed for it – but they sure did later on.

Manjiorin: You know, the Civil Rights movement popped into my head while I was reading this too, similar to what Sweetpea mentioned. In 20th Century music is literally what holds the people together through the daily grind, despite the fact that they’re supposedly living in the Friend’s utopia. The music isn’t written down anywhere, it’s simply passed down through a sort of “oral tradition” as a way to say “we’re thinking, even when you told us not to.” I’m reminded of hymns and non-violent protests that took place during the Civil Rights movement, so that was an interesting small connection, at least for me.

AnimeEmily: It’s interesting how you bring up how the music was passed down through an oral tradition which is how many earlier societies passed down stories and facts that held a great deal of significance to that particular society and it’s customs. The way ‘Gudalala Sudalala’ makes its way around through word of mouth, essentially, sort of shows how even societies as advanced as the one in the 2000s, and even the late 1900s, revert back to these old methods of passing down significant pieces of their history. In a way it’s a bit inspiring to see how people will still keep something like a street song sung back before Friend’s society and pass it along since it kinda shows how people still keep in touch with each other despite all the crazy stuff that might be going on around them.

Justin: As I see us talking about Gudalala Sudalala, it’s pretty cool how popular is has gotten outside of the manga. Naoki Urasawa sang the song himself and he even sang it live. Certain works do have songs that stem from their source material, but I think Urasawa’s the only one to actually have a song out himself. What mangaka has their own song? Where would they have the time? It’s great to see 20th Century Boysthis out, if only because it also shows Urasawa can sing and play the guitar, if anything else.

So I think as people check out 20th Century Boys or for those who have already read it, I think they will start to understand that there are a lot of elements in the manga, but if they take away anything, music is definitely one they should keep in memory. Urasawa had a love for classic rock, and I feel like he incorporated it in a way that didn’t take away from the manga. So as we wrap this up, do any of you have any more thoughts to share about music in 20th Century Boys and Urasawa’s love for it?

Manjiorin: This series is a bit of a standout for me (in terms of his “Big 3” series) in that it obviously incorporated one of Urasawa’s most beloved hobbies. It almost felt like Kenji was sometimes a stand-in for Urasawa and he was definitely able to draw and write a lot of his passion into the characters. I’ll always love Monster and think Pluto was the best of the three, but 20th Century Boys really showed us a piece of who Urasawa is, I think.

AnimeEmily: I agree completely, Manjiorin. In preparation for this festival, I watched a video on Urasawa that Justin kindly provided us with and one of the things it detailed that really struck a chord with me in terms of this manga and Urasawa is the break in between 20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys. After taking time off from working on the manga, Urasawa comes back to it and discovers that a majority of his fans are only really paying attention to the grand revelation of who Friend is, and he runs into a bit of a wall. He becomes a bit stuck between deciding whether to listen to the fans, like his editor encourages him to, or to stay true to the vision of the manga he wants. In the end, he looks to his favorite artist, the person whose first name is a part of the title of ‘Gudalala Sudalala’s predecessor: Bob Dylan. He thinks back on how Dylan, despite the booing from fans at his concerts, played the music he wanted to without caring all too much about what his fans thought. Thinking about this gives Urasawa the push he needs to write the conclusion he wants to his famous manga.

What I love about this real life influence of music in Urasawa’s life is how it adds more of a personal touch a manga that was already pretty personal for Urasawa. It reflects the almost rebellious, “I’ll do as I please” spirit that was so prevalent throughout the manga, especially in helping Kenji and all of those who followed in his rebellious footsteps to stand up and do what they wanted without a care to whatever Friend, or anyone else, said they should be doing.

Sweetpea: I have to completely agree that Urasawa is right there in his work. You don’t need to look farther than the fact that his band came out with the album Half Century Man. I mean, that is a direct reference to 20th Century Boys. Which one influenced which? Well, I’d actually place my money that his album was influenced by his manga, but when both are so connected it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is how important music is to Urasawa, and that shines through.

So what stood out to you regarding music in 20th Century Boys? Sound off in the comments below!

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