“Tekkonkinkreet” is the tale of two young brothers, one named “Black” and the other “White,” and the thematics underlying the Japanese anime by first-time American director Michael Arias couldn’t be more plainspoken. A classic, cosmic battle between good and evil playing out within the soul of the older boy, and organized around the cyclical nature of the seasons, the film displays a dark heart and carries a disturbing emotional force. You would never find anything like it in American animation – of which it’s impossible to conceive of anything beyond the G- or PG-rated, animal-anthropomorphizing blockbuster. It’s too bad, because films such as this (coming on the heels of another fantastical Japanese mindfuck, “Paprika“) makes you realize how much more the form can encompass when its malleable properties are exercised.
Based on Taiyo Matsumoto‘s manga, “Tekkonkinkreet” envisages a gaudy, litter-strewn burg called Treasure Town, where a seen-better-days carnival atmosphere predominates and graffiti marks every wall and shuttered window. This eyesore of a city almost seems to emanate – fanciful and fitting – from the imagination of a child, with its hospital rooms decorated with fish-head bedposts and purple-heart wallpaper, and villains like “Professor Snake,” who sports wavy eyebrows and a red suit with no shirt underneath; the candy-colored land, in fact, seems to take its tone from the slightly unhinged Black who possessively refers to it as “My Town.”
As per their symbolic names, Black has darker tendencies than the younger White. His fits of violence often shock the latter, who-with a perpetually dripping nose and a mantra (“Be happy, be happy”) in constant rotation to ward off encroaching “bad feelings” to which the child is psychically sensitive-mostly maintains the imperturbable mien of a three-year-old. The two, together known as “the Cats,” get into bloody scuffles with local yakuza under the leadership of “the Rat,” and vie for dominance of the town. Though their actions initially come off as the playful game-making of bored kids, they increasingly match the brutality of the old-school gangsters.
Amidst this convoluted action, which ultimately involves alien assassins and a beautiful, psychedelic showdown to save Black’s soul, the director also lovingly strews small, earthbound instances that pulsate with human feeling, such as when the Rat, at a bar with acolyte Kimura, pauses mid-sentence to let a train pass overhead before continuing on. The incorporation of these wafting moments, and the odd, impressionistic touch-like the fading of White’s voice as he describes more “silly dreams” from a bored Black’s perspective, or the approximation of Kimura’s drunken, blurred point-of-view, along with overlapping dialogue, makes “Tekkonkinkreet” something like the animated equivalent of an Altman film. As the Rat reminisces about the destruction of a brothel that “birthed 50 years of men in this town” to make way for a revenue-generating amusement park, a whiff of nostalgia permeates; the film becomes (strangely enough, echoing Altman’s last film) a lamentation for a dying world-and this attention to the transformation of a city, with its attendant goods and ills, makes murkier distinctions between black and white.
Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.