Based on an original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto (released in the USA as ‘Black and White’), Tekkonkinkreet is distinguished by the fact that it is the first Japanese animated feature film to be made by an American director. Having lived in Japan for 12 years where he has worked for Studio Ghibli on Princess Mononoke and subsequently on Animatrix, Michael Arias managed to raise the necessary funds to put into a personal project he had started developing with a short feature back in 1999 directed by Koji Morimoto, and take Tekkonkinkreet forward as a feature film. Witnessing the same kind of social transformation depicted in Matsumoto’s manga work happening in his own Tokyo neighbourhood, Arias found himself well-placed to offer an outsider’s perspective on the subject, bringing something new to the animation style while at the same time, working with the Japanese animation team of Studio 4ºC, retaining its essential Japanese qualities.
Black and White are brothers, two street-smart orphans coping for themselves in a little rundown district known as Treasure Town. They belong to a street gang called the Cats (they are the only members it would seem), and although very young, they are not to be underestimated, as not only gangs from rival districts know, but even the rather more serious yakuza types who have interests in the neighbourhood. They manage to co-exist peacefully enough until an influential gangster called the Rat sends in Kimura and his boys to assert their authority over the streets - but Black and White refuse to give up their haunt without a fight. Unwilling to let the two young punks get in the way of expansion, the Rat teams up with Snake, a rather more sinister character who sends out three deadly assassins with incredible powers after the boys.
Tekkonkinkreet takes the basic characters and situation from Matsumoto’s manga comic ‘Black and White’ and lifts it to another level. Although Matsumoto’s original underground artwork style was never typically Japanese, the director and animators find their own look and feel and bring it completely into life, flowing with movement and bursting with colour. While not quite as mystical and hallucinatory as the original manga source, the filmmakers do however have a firm grasp of the qualities that make it an unusual piece of work. More than being a simple story of rival gangsters involved in a power struggle over a little district with a couple of kids, the main aspect of the story is in the relationship of characters of Black and White themselves and their relationship with the changing world around them.
As their names suggest, the two brothers represents two ends of the spectrum, yet they are complementary and there is a certain mystical bond, a yin and yang relationship between them, darkness and light. White is an innocent, but in tune to the vibrations of the world around him, sensitive to moods, portents and disturbances in the equilibrium of his environment. In his own simple way, he struggles to retain that sense of balance. His brother Black takes a much more direct approach and is prepared to steal for what they need, but he has a tenacious spirit and is determined to hold on to the little he has – his town, his brother - whatever it takes. Feeding off each other’s complementary natures, the two brothers become almost guardian spirits for Treasure Town, preserving its character and its balance of life – one that is also reflected in the division of the film’s chapters by seasons. As such, they are treated with respect by certain figures in the district, including the police officers Fujimura and Sawada, who realise the value of their presence and the threat posed by outside influences that wish to destroy the character of the district with their development plans. Without White to restrain the worst side of his brother however, Black becomes a dangerous and uncontrollable element.
Admittedly, this dualism is rather heavily spelt out in the film and it does tend to follow a familiar route into mysticism that is common in animated features, and is evident in other Matsumoto work, or adaptations thereof - Ping Pong for example. What makes Tekkonkinkreet exceptional however is American director Michael Arias’s perspective on the material and the advances his team bring to the animation. Its integration of CGI and hand-drawn cels work perfectly and are appropriate for conveying the essential universe of Treasure Town, as well as the inner worlds of White and Black. Inspired by the fluid camera work on Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, Tekkonkinkreet becomes the first “Steadicam” animated film, following the characters and replicating complex dynamic camera movements through CGI rather than being restricted to the usual static animation backgrounds. With an original music score by British post-techno duo Plaid to accompany the marvellous flow of the material, Tekkoninkreet is often quite simply beautiful and breathtaking.
Tekkonkinkreet is released in the UK by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented marvellously to DVD here with a nice progressive transfer and – how refreshing for an animation title – few of the usual conversion problems or digital artefacts. Colour banding is rare, but there is some minor edge-enhancement. Otherwise the image looks most impressive. Colour levels are flawless and quite stunning in the manner in which they are employed throughout the film. The image has a soft-touch look, but is perfectly clear, integrating the cel paintings, hand-drawn elements and CGI images perfectly.
The choice here for most will be between the original Japanese and the English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks (a German DD 5.1 dub is also included). Both function very well, though personally I couldn’t get used to the American voice actors and settled for the Japanese track. Dialogue is generally quite clear and centre-channel based though a little hollow and clinical sounding, but I’ve no doubt that this is down to how it was originally recorded. The surround channels are well used and Plaid’s music score is well dispersed.
Proper subtitles are used rather than dubtitles, but from the few samples I made, the English dub doesn’t take a lot of liberties and sticks fairly closely to the original. The optional subtitles are in a white font and are quite clear.
Director Michael Arias, screenwriter Anthony Weintraub and sound editor Mitch Osias contribute to the Commentary, relating their experience of making the film, the choices made, the references used for the character and settings and in so doing keep the commentary fairly active, if it is not particularly essential. Much more interesting is The Making of Tekkonkinkreet – Director Michael Arias’ 300 Day Diary (43:22). In addition to the standard Japanese animation making of, where they visit each department and show what they do, the documentary also follows the progress of the making of the film through its difficulties of finding technical solutions to key sequences and the very real prospect of not being able to get the funds to finish it. Interviews with the director are also illuminating on his background and his perspective on the material. In A Conversation with Director Michael Arias and British Rock Band Plaid (11:38) Andy Turner and Ed Handley talk about their contribution to the film and the challenge of representing aspects of it musically while the film was still in production. Trailers are included for Steamboy and Paprika.
Michael Arias brings his own perspective to Taiyo Matsumoto’s dark underground manga, filling it with life, colour and movement, but remaining true to its themes and characterisation. The animation likewise finds new ways of expression while being essentially Japanese, and rather than being mere dazzle for the sake of spectacle – though it certainly is often quite spectacular – is fully integrated into the purpose and meaning of the film. Sony’s DVD release of Tekkonkinkreet is also quite impressive, giving the film an almost flawless transfer and a number of informative extra features.