A Japanese cultural equivalent of the "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogies.

A Japanese cultural equivalent of the “Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies, and eagerly awaited by a loyal “Watchmen”-like fanbase, “20th Century Boys: Chapter 2″ sees helmer Yukihiko Tsutsumi treading water as he continues his adaptation of the sci-fi manga about a religious cult dominating Japan. Having generated around $30 million since its January local release — slightly less than the first episode’s take — the film has been slower to get offshore release but should eventually approach its forerunner’s steady pan-Asian biz. Western cult ancillary beckons; the first film is skedded for DVD release in the U.K. in May.

While still juggling multiple time zones and story strands, the sequel concentrates on the activities of grown-up high schooler Kanna (Airi Taira), the niece of part one’s central protag, Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa, little seen here). Auds arriving only now in the cycle will quickly understand the gist of the film, if not the frequent digressions.

It is now 2015, and Japan is ruled by an iron-fisted, heavily censorious government that was originally a religious cult ruled by a masked leader called Friend. Said cult was inspired by a childhood manga (“The Book of Prophecies”) drawn by Kanna’s maligned and missing uncle back in 1969.

Kanna is a solemnly angry girl with ESP, martial-arts skills and enough street smarts to broker a deal between Tokyo’s Thai and Chinese gangs (and in their own languages, no less). Along with wide-eyed classmate Kyoko (Haruka Kinami, overacting in an unsuccessful bid at comic relief), Kanna is selected to study the cult’s advanced teachings.

At the cult’s training ground, Kanna links up with a rebellious underground movement spearheaded by one of her uncle’s childhood friends, Yoshitsune (Teruyuki Kagawa, “Tokyo Sonata”). Meanwhile, another of Kenji’s friends, the bedraggled Otcho (Etsushi Toyokawa, “Hula Girls”), has escaped from jail and is singlehandedly leading his own assault on the cult.

The story’s primary event is signaled early on by “The Book of Prophecies,” which foretells an assassination by a savior. The expectation of “Who’s gonna do it?” drags down the action, while the film swamps the viewer with subplots and background exposition. Final reel features a couple of extra twists, mostly to ramp up expectations for the trilogy’s concluding seg.

Tsutsumi’s direction is solid, admirably juggling the myriad strands even as it tries to compensate for a pace that’s less frenetic than that of its predecessor, as well as the sense that the series is biding its time before the final installment. But in the helmer’s steady hand, the pic still manages to entertain and intrigue.

Of the huge ensemble cast, Taira and Toyokawa are most successful in creating genuine personalities. All other thesps hit their marks and remain dutifully subservient to the script.

Project is a hugely ambitious undertaking, sometimes employing prominent Japanese thesps in subsidiary roles, and occasionally using international (particularly Thai) locations. Frustratingly, the VFX budget looks even thinner this time around, with some explosions recycled from the first film. Although some CGI establishing shots reveal “Blade Runner”-like sky-level highways, at ground level, Osaka and Tokyo don’t look much different from how they do in the present day.

As in the first movie, the long end credits are punctuated by a teaser for the next episode, set to be released in Japan on Aug. 28.

20th Century Boys: Chapter 2

Japan

Production

A 20th Century Boys Film Partners, Cine Bazaar, Office Crescendo production. (International sales: Nippon Television Network Corp., Tokyo.) Produced by Nobuyuki Iinuma, Morio Amagi, Ryuji Ichiyama. Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi. Screenplay, Takashi Nagasaki, Yusuke Watanabe, based on the manga by Urasawa.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Satoru Karasawa; editor, Nobuyuki Ito; music, Ryomei Shirai; production designer, Naoki Soma; sound (Dolby Digital), Mitsuo Tokita. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, April 11, 2009. Running time: 140 MIN.

With

Etsushi Toyokawa, Takako Tokiwa, Airi Taira, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naohito Fujiki, Hidehiko Ishizuka, Fumiyo Kohinata, Kuranosuke Sasake, Koichi Yamadera, Yusuke Santamaria, Renji Ishibashi, Katsuo Nakamura, Hitomi Kuroki, Toshiaki Karasawa, Somat Sangsangium, Haruka Kinami. (Japanese, Thai, Mandarin, English dialogue)

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