239. TEKKONKINKREET (2006)

“It was a strange time in Japan: just after the Kobe earthquake and in the midst of Aum’s sarin attacks. Helicopters flying overhead at all hours, police on the streets, yakuza killing cult members on television. Weird with a big W. But my friend had a good manga collection and I was getting bored, so I asked him for a recommendation. And, without stopping to think, he handed me the just-released books of Tekkon… that was it. Hooked. Even the first illustration of Black and White looking over the city – it just felt so real, felt like what I was doing, staring from above at the construction in our neighborhood, listening to helicopters at night, searching for something solid to hold on to in those pre-apocalyptic days.”–Michael Arias on why he decided to adapt Tekkonkinkreet for the screen

DIRECTED BY: Michael Arias

FEATURING: Voices of Kazunari Nimomiya, Yu Aoi (Japanese); Scott Menville, Kamali Minter (English dub)

PLOT: Black, a master fighter despite his young age, and White, a naïve smaller boy given to prophetic pronouncements, live unsupervised on the streets of an urban district nicknamed “Treasure Town.” A gang of yakuza move into the area with the intent of tearing down much of the district to create an amusement park, which requires them to get rid of the powerful Black. As he consolidates his power, the leader of the yakuza sends three superhuman assassins to kill the two boys; but when White is placed under protective police custody, can Black survive without him?

Still from Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story was adapted from a manga (comic) by Taiyô Matsumoto.
  • The title is a mispronunciation (presumably by White) of the Japanese phrase “Tekkin Konkurito” (steel and concrete). The phrase also evokes the Japanese word for “muscle.”
  • Director Michael Arias is an American, the first non-Japanese director to ever helm a major anime film. The screenplay adaptation was also written by an American, Anthony Weintraub. The graphics were done almost exclusively by Japanese artists.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although we chose Black’s fall to Earth from the climactic cosmic battle as our illustrative still, the most striking imagery in Tekkonkinkreet are the baroque urban backgrounds. When you think back on the film, what arises in your mind is some non-specific impression of the phantasmagorical cityscape of Treasure Town, like the raven’s-eye view we get of the district in the opening credits. Treasure Town is a lived-in home town neighborhood in a larger megalopolis, a maze of alleyways cluttered with neon signage. It’s a multicultural never-never land where a peek around the next corner is as likely to reveal a shrine to Ganesha or Betty Boop graffiti as a Shinto pagoda or a noodle stall.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eyeball-wallpapered saloon; the Minotaur; fall to Earth

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Anime, which often takes place in obsessively invented fantasy worlds built from the ground up, is an almost inherently weird genre. It takes a lot to impress us, both in terms of imagination and in terms of quality. Tekkonkinkreet may not offer much in the way of philosophical depth, but it more than makes up for it with eye candy. If you’re looking for superhero-type action in an unreal world, and you value weirdness over cameos by Hollywood stars and comic book moguls, don’t turn to the costumed mutants of the Marvel Universe; come to Treasure Town, where orphans battle yakuza real estate developers and their alien assassins. No half-baked origin stories here, just teenagers battling Minotaurs in space, with their psyches hanging in the balance.


U.S. release trailer for Tekkonkinkreet

COMMENTS: Tekkonkinkreet is as thematically simple as it is visually complex. There is a virtue in a simple story—here, one about friendship and balance—arranged in a complex and novel manner. Tekkonkinkreet‘s mix of computer-generated imagery and traditional hand-drawn animation to create effects that mimic handheld cameras and graceful, swooping aerial tracking shots put it at anime’s vanguard in 2006. But technological innovations aside, it’s the bustling art design that makes Tekkonkinkreet a prize. Treasure Town is a constant wonder. The movie seems designed to take advantage of a DVDs freeze-frame capabilities; how else can you catch tiny, bizarre details like the hammer and sickle at the center of the merry-go-round (!). Treasure Town is a “never-never land,” with architectural influences based in Japan but incorporating elements and styles from China, Indonesia, Thailand and India (elephants everywhere!) to create a pan-Asian cultural stir fry. The district draws on the romantic image of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s as a Casablanca of the Far East, a melting pot for schemers, where the dives are full of smugglers plotting to make their fortune and law and crime are in perfect balance, with neither getting the upper hand for long.

Two orphans named Black and White live on these mean streets. They don’t simply squeak by on their wits, however. They virtually rule the town—or rather, Black does. Known as “the cats,” both Black and White have a feline ability to climb walls and to leap from rooftop to rooftop. Black is frequently found perched on the top of a telephone pole, billboard or skyscraper outcropping, surveying his city like a teenage Batman in a Japanese Gotham. Like Batman, he’s a good guy tempted by darkness. Running off a couple of amateur toughs is a typical kid scrap, but when he takes on a roomful of yakuza, the violence turns brutal. Undeterred by the blood welling up in his goggle after a kick to the head, Black wields his steel crowbar and a broken bottle without mercy against the grown men, leaving yakuza sub-boss Kimura with a nasty facial scar—a mark that, ironically, serves to highlight the similarities between the two adversaries. Black himself sports a  vertical scar that bisects his right eye, suggesting a grim past, and symbolically suggesting damaged vision. Teenage Black is so tough that, when it comes time to take him out, alien assassins must be called in to do the job.

White, on the other hand, is an 11-year old boy who can’t count up to his age. He is as athletic as Black, but is an innocent pacifist, with a childlike collection of animal hats (bear, parrot, frog) and a charmingly autistic manner of chanting “be happy, be happy…” White is not merely kind; he is foolishly wise, and like many idiot-savants, he’s under God’s special protection. He has in-story visions that are indistinguishable from reality. He falls backwards off a bridge and floats like a feather to the ground; Black watches him, unconcerned. In another scene, the wise old grandfather figure notes the wisdom that is tied to White’s innocence: “White’s a marvel. Completely unscathed by this armpit of a city… Probably got all the answers.” During this speech, the animation switches to a child’s drawing style as the boy imagines he is riding an elephant through a forest, followed by a couple of penguins. When the picture resolves back into the “realistic” style, the elephant is still in the room (and no one else seems to notice it). Amidst his childish babble and fantasies about being an agent defending the planet Earth, White consistently slips in both prophecies and moral wisdom: “talking bad about people makes your heart dry up,” “God’s mad at us,” “the Minotaur is going to eat up this town, I got a bad feeling.”

Not surprisingly, Black’s final, hallucinatory battle begins with White falling into a trance across town; a camera zooms into his eyeball and suddenly Black is half in one world, half in another. The theme of Black and White’s dependence and duality is about as subtle as their names. Black, who is given to wearing odd t-shirts (including one that reads—in English—“BLACK”), has one with figures that resemble a “6” and “9” (forming a ying-yang symbol). The villainous Snake’s business card is a deformed, unbalanced yin-yang symbol, with fangs. In one of his typical holy fool pronouncements, White explains that the two hold the missing “screws” to each others hearts. White would not survive the streets very long without Black’s toughness, but the older boy can’t hold his psyche together without his younger charge’s kindness to keep his violence in check. He becomes a monster when separated.

Besides the obvious theme of duality, Tekkonkinkreet can also be seen, on the surface, as an anti-urban progress screed. The main villain of the piece is a (possibly alien) real estate developer who wants to tear down the old town and turn it into Kiddie Kastle, a Disneyfied amusement park. But, although it would be a shame to lose Treasure Town’s majestic watering holes where fish swim in plastic bags suspended overhead and the walls are papered with scarlet eyeballs, the park, when it comes, is every bit as magical as the rest of the city, with giant clowns roam over the mosaic floors between rearing elephant pillars. Tekkonkinkreet‘s artists can’t draw ugly. Black instinctively resists change, whether from the yakuza or gentrification. When a new gang moves onto his turf, he defiantly refers to Treasure Town as “my town.” Meanwhile, the yakuza Rat is morose because the park will force the closing of a beloved strip joint/brothel where generations of his men lost their virginity; he, too, refers to Treasure Town as “my town,” but it is not quite the same place where Black lives. Of course, both of them are inhabitants, not owners, of Treasure Town; neither has the right, or capacity, to enforce their will. Things will inevitably change and evolve, the old passing away to make way for the new, as Tekkonkinkreet‘s seasonal motif reminds us. Black’s rage comes from his attachment to, and sense of dominion over, a place. But the real treasure in his life is not the town, but his friendship with White, which completes him. He must realize this to defeat his dark side and find happiness outside of the city. When the world goes mad, we cling to each other in the midst of change and chaos. The seasons change, but bonds between people endure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yarn has a tendency to shift gears for no apparent reason, but core story employs philosophical attitudes about being true to all aspects of one’s personality that will appeal to a youth audience. The apocalyptic ‘2001’-style finale heralding Black’s journey into himself allows art director Shinji Kimura (‘Steamboy’) to really rip loose.”–Russell Edwards, Variety (contemporaneous)

“…the boys live in an atmospherically derelict and imaginary Japanese place called Treasure Town, a surreal explosion of skewed angles, leaning towers, hanging wires, narrow alleys and gaudily cute flourishes that bring to mind a yakuza cityscape by way of a Hello Kitty theme park… Beautiful and a touch bewildering, ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ kinks up a fairly familiar story of love and loyalty with a helping of underworld crime action, the usual juvenile agonies and some fuzzy philosophy.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“[Treasure Town] is a little bit prewar Los Angeles and a little bit postwar Tokyo, with a dash of Cleveland, a coating of Constantinople and a heavy dose of lysergic acid… by the end of this phantasmagorical journey, I was as wrapped up in the precarious fate of these two wounded kids and the honorable yakuza warlords of Treasure Town as I’ve been in any film all year.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Tekkon Kinkreet Official Website – Mostly in Japanese, but you should be able to navigate to a nice gallery of stills, at least

Tekkonkinkreet | Sony Pictures – Not much on the U.S. distributor’s site except for a synopsis and links to buy the film

IMDB LINK: Tekkonkinkreet (2006)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Tekkonkinkreet directed by Michael Arias – This page at Michael Arias’ official site serves as an “unofficial site” for Tekkonkinkreet

Tekkonkinkreet (movie)Tekkonkinkreet entry at the Anime News Network encyclopedia, with more technical information than the IMDB page and a selection of links

Anime through an American eye – Interview with Michael Arias from the English-language Japan Times newspaper

Michael Arias interview – A very extensive interview conducted by Ben Ettinger

michael arias on TEKKON KINKREET – Essay/interview with Arias from “de-VICE the Third” magazine

Ten Years of “Tekkonkinkreet” – An Interview with Anime Director Michael Arias – Another interview, this one conducted recently to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the film’s release

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Tekkon Kinkreet / Black & White – The English-language version of Taiyo Matsumoto’s original manga

Tekkonkinkreet Art Book Shinji Kimura – Black Side – Art director Shinji Kimura’s concept art for the movie, mostly pencil sketches; text in Japanese.

Tekkonkinkreet Art Book Shinji Kimura – White Side – Companion book to the “black side” compilation, focusing on completed backgrounds (also in Japanese)

DVD INFO: Sony’s 2006 DVD release (buy) is an ace, with a crisp picture and options to watch the film dubbed into English or subtitled (I recommend the latter, as American Black’s voice is too distractingly teen-idolish, and White is too “Sesame Street”). The disc features a commentary by the American crew involved: director Arias, screenwriter Weintraub, and sound mixer Mitch Osias (the latter two were Arias’ college buddies whom he brought onto the project, so there is a feeling of reunion and camaraderie to their conversation). An interview with the director and the English duo Plaid (who composed the score), along with a production diary that actually creates suspense as deadlines are missed and challenges arise, make up the other significant extras (the anime trailers, for Paprika among other titles, are fun as well).

The same features are available in higher-definition on the 2007 Blu-ray (buy).

Tekkonkinkreet is also available for rental or purchase on-demand.

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  1. Was a little surprised (happily so) that this made the cut.

    Can’t wait to see what you think of Mind Game, also from Studio 4°C.

    • Definitely! I also want to know what you make of Mindgame. Specially the dialogue with God.

    • I’m a little surprised you’re a little surprised this made the cut. Orphans battling minotaurs in space, what’s not weird?

      We will look at Mind Game someday, too.

      Let me take this moment to recommend Michael Arias’ latest, Harmony. It’s not super-weird—it’s more hard sci-fi—and it’s more adult-oriented than this one, but it is my favorite animated film of the year so far.

  2. Heh.

    Well, of course you’re right G. Smalley. I was just looking at it in the context of some of its stable-mates {Mind Game, the Genius Party omnibus films).

    Mind Game has never received a licensed Region 1 release (tho I think there are some PAL releases out there).

    It has a lot of fans worldwide, and is probably universally revered as one of the weirdest of the weird.

    I envy your getting to see it for the first time, and can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

  3. I’d like to take a look-see at Harmony, and speaking of more adult animated fare, the 1973 rarely seen Japanese classic, Belladonna of Sadness, makes its U.S. debut (on blu ray no less!) in July. Really looking forward to that one!