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My Life is Choked with Comics #11 – Tekkonkinkreet (aka: Tekkon Kinkreet, aka: Black & White)

Joe McCulloch

Yes, believe it or not, I’m covering a new comic. A comic from the friendly nation of Japan. I hear the comics are popular in Japan, not that you’d know they exist from this column.

I was just reading an old issue of Epic Illustrated the other day (Vol. 1 No. 4, Winter 1980), and I was surprised to find a short portfolio feature dedicated to Shotaro Ishimori of Kamen Rider and Cyborg 009. The introduction (by Gene Pelc & Archie Goodwin) bluntly states that comics are more popular in Japan than anywhere else, and it’s interesting to see those sentiments coming out of that particular time, prior to much of any meaningful manga presence in the US (the earliest piece of manga-in-America I own is a 1982 pamphlet-format edition of Kenji Nakazawa’s I Saw It), yet just as the Japanese industry was indeed coming out from a period of strong development, and entering a time of even greater financial success.

It’d take a few more years before Japanese comics really began making themselves known on the US scene. For example, 1987 saw an aggressive effort by established comics publisher Eclipse and an entity called VIZ Comics to release manga serials in the pamphlet format at a biweekly rate. Eclipse is long gone now, but VIZ weathered the storm of shifting market forces to see manga emerge as a powerful force, and the entity now fully known as VIZ Media, LLC, commands great attention from readers. It’s got Naruto, for one thing. Actually, it’s got a lot of stuff from Shogakukan and Shueisha, two of Japan’s biggest manga publishers, since both entities have a financial interest in it. Also in the VIZ catalog: the book we examine today.

It’s a deluxe, softcover, 624-page brick of stuff, reminiscent in dimension of a Cerebus phonebook, except on much nicer paper and with color segments. It has a dust jacket with art on both sides, and a pull-out poster. It’s $29.95, designed to the hilt, and probably at your local comics shop or bookstore right now. Not even on the closeout rack! And there’s also a recent feature-length animated film adaptation, which just came out on R1 dvd! I am one contemporary son of a bitch today.

Aaaah, but you’ve probably already guessed that there’s more here than meets the eye. This isn’t really a very new comic. Given the long history of VIZ, it’s not even all that new to English-language readers. In some ways it’s similar to other popular manga out now, but in many ways it’s quite different. Its anime adaptation is both quite different from it, and quite different from other anime. It is not a perfect work, yet often a beautiful success. Its details are worth exploring (so, HOTT SPOILAZ AHEAD), even as it exists as something immediate.

Tekkonkinkreet is the creation of writer/artist Taiyō Matsumoto. It was serialized from 1993-94 in Big Comic Spirits, a prominent weekly seinen (young adult male) anthology from Shogakukan. Matsumoto had been active in professional manga since 1986, when he was not yet 20 years old. He’d been athletically inclined as a youth, and his debut work was a short baseball-themed work titled Straight. I’ve heard his style was much more traditional back then, though I’ve actually seen very little of his work from the period.

Upon reaching the age of 22, Matsumoto left Japan on an artistic research trip to study the Paris-Dacar Rally (now simply the Dakar Rally), an annual off-road race which at that time extended, appropriately, from Paris to Dakar. But Matsumoto lost interest in covering the race, just like in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and instead became taken by the works of French comics greats like Moebius and Enki Bilal. In this way, he mirrored the bande dessinée interests of famed Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, whose 1980-82 serial Domu had inspired the young Matsumoto to become a comics artist in the first place. By the 1991 beginning of his boxing serial Zero, Matsumoto’s visual style had moved between international influences, becoming something truly unique to him (for more on Matsumoto’s wide body of work, please see Chris Butcher’s profile).

Tekkonkinkreet was, from what I can gather, a big success for Matsumoto upon its initial release. That’s going to be important to keep in mind – Matsumoto is a popular artist in Japan, creating popular works through an ‘alternative’ visual style. The wider Japanese media world has long taken note; Matsumoto’s short story collection Blue Spring and his table-tennis epic Ping Pong have both been adapted to live-action film. Before it was an anime, Tekkonkinkreet was produced for the stage.

However, the artist has not had an enormous amount of success in English-speaking environs, though not for lack of trying on the part of his publisher. An early attempt by VIZ to bring Matsumoto’s surreal fantasy opus No. 5 to North American readers in a lovely oversized format stalled after two volumes, and was recently referred to as the worst-selling manga in VIZ history. Ok, so that was a pair of $15.95, 144-page oddball fantasy books put out half a decade ago, not quite in time for the manga supernova and outside of the typical price/format sweet spot. Unfortunately, VIZ’s 2004 release of Blue Spring in the ‘popular’ manga format did not fare much better. Er, maybe it was the subject matter? Varied, realistic-to-expressionistic portraits of rough, aimless Japanese youths probably don’t equal big money.

Perhaps that’s why VIZ has tried over and over again to acclimate English-speaking readers to Tekkonkinkreet. It’s an action manga, loaded with violent fights and cool characters, and superficially not that far removed from some of the popular shōnen (young male) titles that have moved more and more English-language copies as time has gone by. The work was first introduced to English-reading folk in serialized form under the title Black & White — named for the story’s two main characters — in the 1997 debut issue of VIZ’s lamented mature manga anthology Pulp. Reactions to the serial were mixed, enough so that it eventually became a sort of mild running theme in the magazine’s letters column for readers to refer to prior readers’ oft-negative reactions to the work.

As with most things, I personally got to the Pulp party late. I couldn’t say Black & White was my favorite feature either; that’d have to be Toyokazu Matsunaga’s Bakune Young, the second collected volume of which is the best action manga I’ve ever read, a near-perfect fusion of vivid art, larger-than-life characters, over-the-top antics, genre parody, social satire, and bone-cracking violence. I was also partial to Usamaru Furuya’s aesthetically adventurous quasi-gag feature Short Cuts, and Kentaro Takekuma’s & Koji Aihara’s brilliantly funny, bilious industry spoof Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, the translation of which tragically stalled about halfway through. Pulp featured a lot of interesting-in-retrospect material, including earlier (inferior) stories by Hideo Yamamoto of eventual Ichi the Killer infamy, and some light sex comedy work from Naoki (no relation) Yamamoto, who’d eventually become a favorite of some English-speaking readers (via scanlations) as a transgressive, adventurous storyteller. And then there’s the art of such reliable favorites as Ryoichi Ikegami and Jiro Taniguchi!

Black & White, meanwhile, didn’t even finish its run in Pulp; VIZ rotated it out of the magazine in 1999 and released the last few serial chapters as a five-issue, pamphlet-format miniseries through 2000. By that point, VIZ had also begun collecting the material into $15.95 collected editions, the third and final one of which arrived in late 2000.

The work rose in esteem, however, as the years passed. Manga became increasingly popular in the US, and Matsumoto’s admirers grew in number, eagerly supporting each doomed new release, and probably scouring his back catalog on the internet. But some English-speaking admirers were around from near the beginning; in 1995, the work was read by one Michael Arias, an American in Japan. He was taken by the work; over a decade later, he would direct its anime adaptation, the existence of which no doubt prompted VIZ to release this newest, fourth incarnation of the work in English, under the original Japanese title to match the anime.

That’s not to say that everyone’s totally in love with Tekkonkinkreet today. In a recent discussion with the aforementioned Chris Butcher about the availability of manga-in-English that could appeal beyond a teenage target audience, Dirk Deppey deemed Tekkonkinkreet “flashy but shallow” and concluded “Matsumoto’s comic isn’t by any means a bad read — as crime-themed fight comics go, it’s an enjoyable little bit of fluff — but if you’re going to hold a book up as an adult’s alternative to Naruto, shouldn’t it be something other than a mildly more mature version of same?” And I agree to some extent.

Let me reemphasize: Tekkonkinkreet is an individualistic pop comic. It is, at heart, a high-flying genre shitkicker, redolent with personal touches, a discernible worldview, and visual style inseparable from the tale’s telling so as to be handwriting. Honestly, if you’re trying to persuade a hypothetical potential reader that Japanese comics can appeal to the ‘mature’ mindset or perhaps possess contemporary ‘literary’ value, you might have an uphill battle suggesting a work so close to many other comics that said hypothetical potential reader may have glanced over and dismissed as adolescent bullshit. It’d be a thousand times easier and more effective to just recommend Kan Takahama’s Monokuro Kinderbook or something.

But, to the reader that might be interested in a little two-fisted urban fantasia, there is much of interest to Tekkonkinkreet. The title is a delightfully translation-proof pun meaning “a concrete structure with an iron frame,” which, as the dust jacket’s inside flap tells us, signifies opposition between a concrete city and the imagination. That’s a great little encapsulation of the story, if a bit too metaphorical to use as promotion. Pulp summarized the plot in every issue’s table of contents as: “Mean kids practice random violence and senseless acts of ugliness on the mean streets.” Now that pulls me right in (and probably drives others right away), even though it’s not very accurate at all.

Broadly, Tekkonkinkreet is the story of two homeless, parentless prepubescent boys, Black and White, also known as the Cats, who live in a car in the urban sprawl of Treasure Town. They get into fights with lots of folk, eventually coming into conflict with the Disney-like presence of Kiddie Kastle, Inc., which has been bleaching out the muck from Japan with family-friendly amusement parks, and is now looking toward the Cats’ area. This clash results in Black and White being torn apart, which causes the two of them to freak out for several trillion pages, at which point they reunite and the freaking out concludes, with the book.

There are many instances of duality throughout the work, and the main characters provide the first and biggest. Black is mostly a horrible little bastard, kicking the piss out of people and stealing their money. He is greatly possessive of the city, fancying it ‘his,’ and he sometimes looms above the bustle, balanced on a telephone pole, like he’s the goddamned Batman. He’s also ferociously devoted to White:

I can never forgive anyone who hurts White for any reason. Nothing pisses me off more.”

This declaration directly precedes a handsome beating gifted to some poor drunk who kicked White while he was sleeping. White himself oscillates between vague concern over Black’s actions (“But Grampa said you’d go to hell if you hurted people.”), and gleeful participation in the violent action, which he seems to accept as little more than an elaborate game, complete with telephone calls to an imaginary off-planet base that monitors the duo’s heroic actions. As the previously-mentioned Grampa (an old fellow who sometimes watches over the pair) observes, White seems untouched by the corrupting force of Treasure Town; his violence is the animal play of immaturity, while Black’s is the hard force of immature notions of entitlement and justice.

But it does take a while for all that to play out. I can totally see how some readers, taking in the serial month by month, might come away with the impression that the story is nothing but kids breaking stuff. Matsumoto carefully doles out plot progression and character moments across 33 chapters, often only nudging the story forward through some character exchange or musing. It reads very well as a single book, where its swift, unbroken momentum allows bits of complexity to be released at a good clip for much of the length. You can pick up the twisted heroic logic behind Black’s selection targets when you see them so close together, beatings spread like musical beats.

The reason why that momentum is so swift is Matsumoto’s art, which cannot be broken away from the storytelling. I don’t know if the artist used any assistants to pound out these 600+ pages over less than two years at a weekly pace, but I suspect the wobbly quality of his lines, his character art vivid and unrestrained, aided with his production speed. It certainly sets out the tone of the work, the reader’s viewpoint hustling through the streets like a race as Matsumoto tilts buildings to emphasize how Treasure Town surrounds its residents and guests. Few uses of screentone can be sighted; the hand-drawn nature of the backgrounds connects them to the characters, all of them elements in a Matsumoto universe.

He’s also excellent with the many fighting and chase sequences, which can be taken as an extension of the athletic inclination of the artist’s sports manga; one of the key appeals of this book is the way Matsumoto expresses the fun of what these boys do. Like many an action manga character, Black and White can literally leap from the streets to rooftops, and soar from perch to perch, down onto moving vehicles and away up toward nearby ledges. It is mentioned in the story that these feats are amazing, but other characters can do it too; as such, Matsumoto implies than anyone can leap around like the old-timey Superman if only they’d practice hard enough. Many superhero comics could take lessons in how to convey the sheer ecstasy of zipping through the air and hitting things in perfect form.

And it is important that Matsumoto’s action in thrilling, because Black and White don’t really come through as developed characters as much as metaphoric constructs, both participating in would-be heroic violence, but for different reasons. In this interview, Matsumoto cautions readers not to believe the words of comics artists, because comics are “like fake magic,” but I think there’s some fascinating things going on under the hood of this action vehicle.

First, there’s an element of psychogeography to the story. Near the book’s beginning and end are panels of the same Treasure Town citizens lamenting their place in life, or just bitching about things, establishing the city’s cruel influence on the minds of its people (this conceit later appears in the flawed, ambitious Satoshi Kon-directed television anime Paranoia Agent, its impact extended to seemingly the whole of modern Japan). We are told that White is “untouched” by the city, and he often expresses an implied or express desire to leave. Black, meanwhile, is fully a product of his environment, both in terms of lifestyle and psychology, even though he thinks he runs the place.

We’re told that Suzuki, an old gangster known as the Rat, “can change the entire personality of a city.” But Suzuki turns out to be quite sentimental over Treasure Town and its filthy ties to his long-gone youth, while a devilish Kiddie Kastle representative called Serpent (in the anime he’s hilariously given blonde hair and a red suit, although they do stop short of cloven hooves and a thin tail) charges forward to transform the city into an international plastic atrocity, probably knowing that changing the character of the city could change the people into consumerist drones.

From these superficial details, you might see Tekkonkinkreet as a rant against gentrification, and in some ways it is. You also might detect an element of xenophobia in the expressly wicked, nonsense language-spouting characters’ outside attributes, a mix of Chinese, French and American accoutrement. It is true that the traditionalists of the cast (like the Rat) are treated far more sympathetically than the outside element. However, this reading would require both the story to play out in typical OUT OF OUR TOWN, FOREIGN fashion, and the art to be not nearly as proudly diverse in influence as Matsumoto’s. Indeed, the very look of the comic undercuts such notions, along with the special details; when Matsumoto has a pair of goons dress for combat in battle armor designed in obvious homage to Moebius’ Arzach, he expresses as much love for the weird character of far away lands as concern for local identity.

But moreover, I think it’s a mistake to characterize Tekkonkinkreet as a clash between good and evil, tradition and modernity, the streets and Di$ney, or any of that at all. As I mentioned before, there’s much dualism at work among the characters. There’s Black and White. There’s Suzuki the Rat, arch-traditionalist and an oddly peaceful man, and his underling Kimura, a hungry young gangster who switches sides to Kiddie Kastle after a humiliating defeat at the hands of Black. There’s a pair of cops: Fujimura, a rough city veteran who knows all the ways around, and Sawada, an educated rookie who wants to shoot guns to compensate for… exactly what you’d expect.

And then there’s the mythical characters. The Serpent, who believes that he’s doing the work of God, and is explicitly tied to the biblical tale of Eden. And the Minotaur, that heartless beast that knows the Labyrinth, and kills anything in his way. He’s mentioned at points in the story as the only thing that can stop the march of Kiddie Kastle. When he later shows up for real, he’s actually the flipped-out Black, Tyler Durden-style.

All these animal names give Matsumoto plenty of room to insert lil’ beasts into his panels for extra symbolic weight – black and white cats abound. But more striking to me is Matsumoto’s use of conflicting myths, each of which embody their own extreme in the story’s universe. The Serpent obviously has to be slithering through Eden, ready to prompt the sins of humans. But Matsumoto upends the story; Serpent doesn’t cause anyone to defy God, but acts as a self-declared agent of God to force people out. There is an apple to eat, to gain knowledge of good and evil, but it’s White that plants a Tree of Knowlege in the muck; he’s shown munching on apples even as we’re told Treasure Town has no effect on him, and he decides to grow a tree outside of his and Black’s car/home. Black doesn’t believe it’ll grow in such a place.

If Serpent is the agent of total eviction, total outside force (he works for GOD), then the Minotaur embodies the full darkness of Treasure Town, a killer extension of its rotten maze alleys and hopeless corridors. Black is fully a product of Treasure Town, and might yet embody the ultimate in the city’s wretched personality, if only he’d give in totally to his ‘mission’ of protection of ‘his’ city.

I should note that very little of this is my own observation – Matsumoto usually points this stuff out specifically in dialogue, which sometimes feels like hand-holding. More pressingly, The Last Temptation of Black often drags after he and White are broken apart by their war with Kiddie Kastle; seeing the two crack up gets tedious after a while, and it’s pretty much the entire last 1/3 of the book. It knocks around Matsumoto’s careful pace. It can be frusterating.

However, there is a method to this, I think. If Matsumoto spoils our desire for a complete build, it is maybe because his plot seeks to defeat all childish notions of (super)heroism. The pair of mythic beings, the Serpent and the Minotaur, also serve as tempters to other characters, Kimura and Black, who’d previously been characterized as their own extremes. The saga of Kimura and the Rat eventually transforms into a downbeat What If…? as to Black’s relationship with White.

At the behest of the Serpent, who’s sick of the Rat’s opposition to his mission of transfiguration, Kimura kills the Rat; in one of the book’s best bits, the elder yakuza figures out what the young man is doing, and actually instructs him on how to pull off the killing perfectly. But cut free from the Rat, Kimura is set on a path that eventually leads to his own doom. The Minotaur, meanwhile, tempts Black to devote himself totally to his violent protection of Treasure Town. But, in a predictable enough climactic flourish to expose some of the cheez whiz running through the work’s veins, Black thinks of White, and decides that he’s what he believes in. Oh, and the apple tree has grown, of course, symbolizing the rightness of White’s soulful madness. Of course.

Still, it’s churlish of me to go too hard on an action comic that concludes with such an emphatic anticlimax. I mean, basically Black totally abandons his mission and reunited Cats get the hell out of Treasure Town. There is no resolution to the struggle between the city and Kiddie Kastle; there’s even an awesome panel near the end of various surviving ‘villains’ standing around looking confused. Matsumoto has made it clear that even the destruction of the Big Bad results in more villains taking his place, and that even the home team may be worth abandoning, if the cost is too much (Black ain’t the mythic hero, he’s potentially the monster).

It’s an anti-heroic work, in that while it presents a childlike glee in violent acts, it completes the thought by depicting simple notions of heroism as child’s play, and suggests that readers leave behind notions of ‘villains’ to be dealt with by ‘heroes’ and sift through life as individuals of imagination. And by frustrating the pace of an action comic, Matsumoto prepares us to reject smooth resolutions as well.

I mentioned there’s an anime. I’m torn over it. It’s a very attractive piece, produced by the great Studio 4°C in an often stunning feat of visual craft, one that gleefully embraces Matsumoto’s world influence; hell, it’s even got an American in the director’s chair, along with screenwriter Anthony Weintraub. Music by British duo Plaid! This music video will give you a decent idea of the film’s aesthetic quality, respectful of Matsumoto by finding its own way among the arts of many nations. It couldn’t have been easy to make in the world of anime, famous for its aesthetic conservatism.

And yet… it didn’t sit well with me. There’s two big changes made to Matsumoto’s original, both for the worse.

First, Black is smoothed down a lot. This is despite most of the dialogue coming almost straight out of the comic – it’s the sad and contemplative faces of the animators vs. Matsumoto’s punkish directness that tells the tale. But like I implied above, trying to treat Black as a complex character doesn’t work; his power as a character in the comic comes from his simple, metaphorical quality. Made sullen and tearful, he comes off as little more than hot-blooded-yet-soulful anime hero #34,524.

This feeds into the second big change, in which the antiheroic conclusion is made… more heroic. The anime holds off on the introduction of Kiddie Kastle until the very end, and makes it the site for a big battle between Black & the Minotar and KK goons, which does provide some nice sights; the whole amusement park becomes kind of a psychedelic Métal Hurlant landscape. But it also adds a touch more finality (and more explosions) to the battle between the city and Change. It recontextualizes Kimura’s death as an imagined possibility of Black gaining what I guess are some sort of evil god powers, which sort of spoils the Kimura/Rat story’s place in the larger text. Crucially, it switches the growing apple tree from a somewhat cheesy symbol for White’s enduring spirit to a really cheesy for growth returning to Treasure Town, as if Black’s and White’s struggle had been worth it all along.

This detracts greatly from the impact of the finale, which now seems merely the clichéd affirmation of brotherly affection, instead of a grander rejection of hurtful myth-making (needless to say, the concluding bits of Treasure Town residents lamenting their state are gone). Even worse, the film does all this while preserving the concluding non-flow of Matsumoto’s storytelling; stripped of anti-heroic purpose, the film just seems badly paced. Which is a shame.

The final page of Matsumoto’s work sees a happy Black and White standing on a beach. Black is holding an apple. Maybe the apple that will finally give him knowledge of Good & Evil, making him see things less in black & white? We don’t know if he’s eaten from him. And from the way he’s holding it, he’s offering it to the reader. Matsumoto wants us to bite, to leave Eden, and exist away from the control of God/commerce, and outside of heroic quests doomed to fail. Maybe we’ll take his offer, but we should thank him for it even if we don’t; some works aren’t quite ready to afford us the chance.

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