It’s pop culture vs. totalitarian religious cults as sci-fi manga adaptation “20th Century Boys: Chapter 3” concludes the intriguing but uneven series. Newcomers will have trouble catching up, and the manga’s fans will also be caught off-balance — but further enthused — by a new ending sanctioned by creator and co-scriptwriter Naoki Urasawa. Released in August, the trilogy’s finale outdid previous entries, scoring $50 million at the local B.O., indicating that local ancillary releases of previous episodes picked up extra fans. International attention should increase now that the entire trilogy can be marketed as a collection.
Latecomers will be grateful for a five-minute pre-credits sequence explaining how a group of 1969 Japanese kids who drew a manga about a religious megalomaniac taking over the world grew up to see it happen. “Chapter 3” kicks off just after Chapter 2’s 2015-set finale, which depicted masked cult leader Friend’s successful staging of his own assassination/resurrection and ascension to godhood.
Friend’s next step is to end the world, taking only his true believers with him to salvation. Kenji (Toshiaki Karasawa), who dominated the 1999-set Chapter 1, has since built a rep as a reclusive underground rock star. He emerges from hiding to feature at an Osaka outdoor concert held in defiance of Friend’s promised apocalypse.
Meanwhile, Kenji’s freedom-fighting niece, Kanna (Airi Taira), who spearheaded Chapter 2, continues her infiltration of the religious cult. “Chapter 3” offers Friend’s p.o.v. for the first time: Bad dreams indicate the man behind the god is troubled by his past.
In between these three threads and the drama of the redemptive power of rock ‘n’ roll are multiple subplots with fleeting appearances of characters from the first two films and abundant cameos by well-known thesps. Japanese pop-culture references are plentiful.
As ever, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s helming of this multistranded epic is patchy. Some directorial choices show poor visual judgment, while others are just a byproduct of obvious financial constraints. The Friend sequences — especially the yarn’s 15-minute coda — best demonstrate the director’s flair for eerie intrigue.
The central acting trinity of Karasawa, Taira and Etsushi Toyokawa (as Otcho, Kenji’s buddy and Kanna’s mentor) all have settled into their roles. And even though it borders on cliche, the digitally manipulated voice of the masked Friend still chills.
The song that acts as Kenji’s oft-played resistance anthem has a Peter, Paul & Mary-like charm. The titular T. Rex song never fails to recharge the narrative whenever it’s used.
Among the pro tech credits, it’s the special effects that are the most convincing in the whole trilogy.