Childhood dreams become doomsday nightmares in the entertaining if not entirely satisfying Nipponese sci-fi thriller "20th Century Boys."

Childhood dreams become doomsday nightmares in the entertaining if not entirely satisfying Nipponese sci-fi thriller “20th Century Boys.” Based on co-scripter Naoki Urasawa’s manga, which sold over 20 million copies, pic is the first installment in a projected trilogy about a boy’s apocalyptic comicbook being taken as inspiration, prophecy and instruction manual for a deadly cult. Pic has done socko biz, generating more than ¥3.4 billion ($35.9 million) since its August release; first sequel is skedded to open in January. Western success will be confined to mainstream-minded Asian-themed fests, but fanboy ancillary beckons.

Failed rock ‘n’ roll star Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa) works in a convenience store with his nagging mother and looks after his niece, Kanna. Detectives drop by to ask about his regular customers, the members of the Shimisaki family, who have vanished, but the perpetually dazed Kenji doesn’t have any information.

Kenji visits the Shimisakis’ house and notices a strange symbol — a pointing finger positioned in front of an open eye — etched on the wall. Flashbacks reveal the symbol was a logo for a secret club formed by a young Kenji and seven other schoolboys (and a tomboyish girl). Main entertainment at the clubhouse was a comicbook, amateurishly drawn by Kenji (who now exhibits almost no memory of it), envisaging killer viruses attacking San Francisco, London and Osaka, as well as terrorist attacks on Japanese landmarks.

Thirty years later, the illustrated events come to pass. It appears that oddball kid Sadakiyo (always depicted in flashbacks wearing a comical mask) has grown up to use the comicbook as a prophetic template and has built a powerful religious cult called “Friend” around it. Kenji and his old friends strain to connect the dots between past and present, and auds likewise will be running to keep up with the story’s many strands. Meanwhile, police keep turning up blood-drained corpses connected to missing robotics specialist Professor Shimisaki.

Script appears to severely compress its original source material. Opening 20 minutes introduce a dozen characters and skip among three dominant time zones (late 1960s/early 1970s, eve of the millennium and 2015). Fortunately, once the script settles down (the futuristic strand is almost abandoned and the ’60s/’70s employed only for expository embellishment of the 1999 drama), the film’s middle section is strong and sustains interest even as it baffles. Yarn ultimately raises more questions than it answers but, through sheer momentum, maintains an ongoing sense of menace and intrigue despite dalliances with absurdity.

Extra tension is generated by the fear the script will end on a cliffhanger. Pic delivers an impressive but unrevelatory climax, then wastes no time making its teaser pitch for auds to suit up for the sequel, which will predominantly feature Kenji’s grown-up niece in 2015.

Prolific helmer Yukihiko Tsutsumi (“Memories of Tomorrow,” “Happily Ever After”) deftly moves from mystery to melodrama to action as the script demands. Thesps hit their marks, but while each character is a recognizable type, none of them score as three-dimensional personalities.

Considering pic’s sci-fi ambitions, the production design is surprisingly modest, offering only a light sprinkling of special effects. A sequence depicting a convenience store blazing to the ground is notable, as is the CGI on some exploding Japanese landmarks, but overall, the effects will be regarded as small potatoes by those accustomed to Roland Emmerich-style excess. All tech credits are pro.

As well as referring to Kenji’s 1970s schoolyard gang, the title alludes to a Marc Bolan song that got Kenji’s mojo going as a young rock ‘n’ roller.

20th Century Boys

Japan

Production

A NTV, Office Crescendo, 20th Century Boys Film Partners production. (International sales: Nippon Television Network Corp., Tokyo.) Produced by Nobuyuki Iinuma, Morio Amagi, Ryuji Ichiyama. Executive producer, Seiji Okuda. Co-producer Futoshi Ohira. Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi. Screenplay, Yasushi Fukuda, Takashi Nagasaki, Naoki Urasawa, based on the manga by Urasawa.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Satoru Karasawa; editor, Nobuyuki Ito; music, Ryomei Shirai; production designer, Naoki Soma; sound (Dolby Digital), Mitsuo Tokia. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, Nov. 17, 2008. Running time: 142 MIN.

With

Toshiaki Karasawa, Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa. (Japanese, German, Thai, English dialogue)
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