Taiyō Matsumoto, 1994
In Taiyō Matsumoto’s Manga, two boys named Kuro and Shiro – “Black” and “White” - live in Treasure Town, under the delusion that they “rule” it as a delinquent duo called “The Cats”. However, the Yakuza have designs on converting this part of town into a theme park where money can be made. Whilst White’s babbling seems to be getting worse, Black takes on the Yakuza who unleash superhuman assassins and causes all kinds of trouble.
Of course, Black and White are Yin and Yang: White says numerous times that he has the screws that Black doesn’t have and vice versa. White is seemingly mentally challenged, digesting the world as a toddler who has just discovered he can count and make up songs even though he is about ten. Typically, this subjectivity is equated with innocence in a crazy world, but as these brothers are rendered through symbolism and archetypes, this is less reductive than it might have been. Their friend, the old man on the street, says that he doubts White would have survived if it wasn’t for Black. For Black’s part, he is old beyond his years, bloodthirsty and fearless to the point of foolishness. There is the typical philosophising that runs through Manga, but ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ stops short of the mawkishness that often mars Manga narratives and drags it into tedium; or rather it doesn’t dwell on its sentimentality so much that it gets in way of the action (indeed, each chapter is called a “skirmish”).
‘Tekkonkonkreet’ is a mispronunciation of the Japanese word for concrete. Its superficial look is all-smiling and hectic, but this is misleading: the tone is despairing and downbeat and Kuro/Black really isn’t a smiley kid, being the dark half of the duo: violent, dour, psychotic: his smile is closer to the psychosis of Snake, the ever-grinning bad guy. Matsumoto’s artwork is often giddy, full of the upper regions and taking a bird’s eye view of the city of Takaramachi – “Treasure Town” – since The Cats seem to be able to defy gravity somewhat and constantly perch and live on rooftops. It’s often overcrowded, angular and slightly off-kilter from realism. Several characters – not least the central boys themselves – come with a streak of the surreal and superpowers, offset by the sad-sack slouch of many adults.
The mash-up of slightly Chosen One kids adventure and surreal Yakuza yarn give this an originality that the story would lack if these elements were independent of each other. Black and White are immediately arresting characters and the relatively straightforward telling means it’s direct and compelling right from the start whilst the art is packed full of dynamism. A. E. Sparrow writes:
"Indeed, it's the blending of traditional Japanese manga, European art-stylings and an indie-comic sensibility that push this book into a realm all its own."
It’s fierce and sentimental in equal measure, but it reaches a balance of surrealism and Manga nihilism that always fascinates. And the collection of the serial, ‘Tekkonkinkreet: Black & White’ is gorgeous.
Michael Arias, 2006, Japan
Michael Arias’ film adaptation of ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ does the source full justice. The animation is often breath-taking, keeping the vertiginous perspective of Matsumoto’s original art. For example, the introductory longshot through the city alone is stunning. And likewise, although the design of the faces is cartoonish, the detail of the backgrounds is so chock-full that it surely would mostly prove impossible to take it all in. It often emulates elaborate crane-shots or follows the characters through the streets in a chase sequence, mimicking beats from the action genre and giving the film a more cinematic quality, opening up and getting intimate with the city.
One of the reasons it succeeds is that it doesn’t mess with the story so much. There’s no need. However, it starts with The Cat’s the conflict with Dusk and Dawn which strikes as a wise choice, starting with a conflict that plays a future part in the plot instead of a random skirmish, but otherwise it hardly deviates.
It’s an essential companion piece to Matsumoto’s graphic novel. The tone is downbeat but there’s joyful delirium in the art and Arias’ adaptation maintains that. ‘Tekkonkinkreet’ is familiar in its tropes but filtered through an oddness that makes it quite unique and hanging around the upper echelons of its peers.