Monday, October 6, 2008

Tekkon kinkreet

This is a manga, and also an anime. I read the manga last year, in the original (it's been translated, but I haven't read that version), and saw the anime last week at this symposium, with the screenwriter in attendance. I'm not going to link to the Wikipedia entry, because it's got too much wrong info in it, but: there is one.

Some notes.

1. The title. Tekkon kinkuriito 鉄コン筋クリート, a/k/a Tekkon kinkreet. It's a play on the Japanese term for "reinforced concrete," which is tekkin konkuriito. A good translation for it, then, might be "reincon forcedcrete." But wait, there's more: the image of reinforced concrete conjures up, in a Japanese context, the idea of a soulless urban wasteland in a way it doesn't really in an American context. I think this is because so many of Japan's cities were so totally rebuilt after the war, quickly and cheaply, largely using reinforced concrete, so as a building material it's come to be synonymous with the urbanization. The term doesn't necessarily have these connotations in English, so translating the title as Reincon Forcedcrete still wouldn't quite capture what the original title is all about. My suggestion: how about AsJun phaltgle. Think about it.

2. The manga. Written/drawn by Matsumoto Taiyô 松本大洋, originally published 1993-1994. One of the great manga of the '90s (not that I've read them all, but...). Here was my impression of it then:

As fascinated as I am by the possibilities of serialized entertainment, I’ve already seen a number of examples of manga that succumb to the problems inherent in the form. This doesn’t: it has a tight story arc, and the author didn’t let himself get tempted to spin it out beyond what he could sustain.

It’s set in a sort of near-future or alternate-present Japanese big city, in a neighborhood called Takaramachi, more run-down and gang- and vice-infested than any Japanese neighborhood at present. In that it’s a typical mid-‘90s, post-bubble work, imagining a Japan that’s going down the tubes, that will soon end up looking like every Japanese person’s worst xenophobic nightmare of New York or Bangkok.

The main characters are a couple of brothers, Kuro and Shiro, adolescents who secretly rule the district. They’re homeless, sleeping in an abandoned car; no reason for their orphanhood is ever given, and they’re certainly not helpless. They can literally leap tall buildings at a single bound, and when they land they’re usually bashing somebody over the head with a lead pipe. When I say they rule the district, that’s how it’s put in the book, but it doesn’t mean they actually control the organized crime there—in fact, the local yakuza are a major part of the book. What it means is that Kuro and Shiro can and do beat the crap out of anybody they please, at any time. Wanton violence is the name of the game.

Except, of course, Kuro and Shiro really have hearts of gold. Kuro is a little bit older and wiser, and Shiro is kind of innocent to the point of suggested retardation; they’re extremely protective of each other, and much (though not all) of their violence is in self-defense: it’s a rough town.

The plot is fairly complex, but can be summarized simply. There’s a split in the yakuza faction, and the rebel kobun, Kimura, ends up teaming up with a mysterious, nameless figure from a neighboring district who’s here to take over. He’s kind of evil incarnate, and has three murderous Chinese (?) henchmen; their last task before they own the town is to take out Kuro and Shiro. Big showdown; of course our boys win. And when they do win, they actually decide to escape: head for the country, the beach, a healthy idyllic life.

It’s a good story, well told—I’ve left out too many details to really give the flavor of it here. Kuro and Shiro are sharply realized characters, but so are several of the minor characters, including Kimura and his boss-on-the-way-out, Suzuki. The fight scenes, self-consciously gratuitous violence, are extremely well handled—exciting, kinetic, bursting off the page with energy.

The art is fantastic. It’s in quite an original style—that’s what I’ve been looking for, manga that don’t look like everything else, and this is one of them. It’s in a quasi-graffiti style that makes the town look like a funhouse—like everything’s being seen through a distorting mirror of one sort or another. A deceptive primitiveness—everything works and is perfectly controlled when you examine it closely, but still the overall impression is of chaos. Wonderful art. (Note from the present: my copy is in a box on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic right now, or I'd scan some images to show you what I mean. Instead, take a look at this blog, which has some examples.)

And it’s quite sophisticated on a thematic level. Kuro and Shiro very quickly take on a mythic dimension—they’re constantly shown as being complimentary opposites—yin-yang imagery everywhere with them. And the big climax of the book involves this balance being thrown out of whack. Shiro is taken into protective custody by the cops (who are actually trying to protect him), and this allows Kuro to go wild. He’s fighting the mysterious Chinese (?) thugs, but at the same time the absence of the object of his protection frees up his innate violent nature, so that he reverts to a feral killer. He wins, but the real climax is his confrontation with this semilegendary character known as the Weasel, a kind of ultra version of Kuro and Shiro—the Weasel tries to tempt Kuro to surrendering to the dark side permanently, and since he’s so far into it he almost does. Of course in the end he doesn’t… It’s a very manga-y, very pop-culturey kind of conflict at the end, straight out of Star Wars, but it’s handled really, really well.

Like everything in this manga. I just can’t praise it enough. Very impressive. I can see myself assigning it to represent the ‘90s in an intro to modern lit class.

3. The anime. First of all, the interesting thing about it is that the director and screenwriter are Americans. The director, Michael Arias, is based in Japan and speaks and reads the language; the screenwriter, Anthony Weintraub, is based in New York, and doesn't. Both were involved with The Animatrix. The rest of the staff, the animators, were Japanese, and the thing was made in Japan, in Japanese. The press releases all point out that this is the first anime made by foreigners, which may or may not be true - probably depends on how you define anime, and who you consider fundamentally responsible for an anime...

What's interesting to me is that Arias would have been in an analagous situation to Paul Schrader directing Mishima, as an American director working in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew. I imagine Arias speaks more Japanese than Schrader did, but still I'd love to sit them down in a room together and hear them talk about their experiences. And both films raise the question of how you'd define a "Japanese film."

4. Weintraub is a different story. He did a Q&A at this symposium I attended, and it sounded like he did his screenplay from the translated manga. The English subtitles on the international release of the film are from his screenplay, not the Japanese dialogue - there are some significant divergences. The biggest one is Weintraub's decision (I confirmed it was his decision) to call the Weasel - Itachi in the original - the Minotaur. I can see why he did it, both because of how the character looks and the role it plays in the story, but precisely because of the role it plays in the story, I'd like to debate him on the wisdom of calling it the Minotaur. It kind of predetermines how we're going to look at this character - too much foreshadowing, I think. But it's a creative translation choice, and I applaud that.

5. The anime. Parts of it are really effective - the last half hour or so especially. The visual rendering of the confrontation between Kuro and the Weasel is really mind-blowing. And the animation throughout is unconventional, which I salute.

But I don't think it's a good version of the manga. That quasi-graffiti, controlled chaos, funhouse-mirror style that I loved so much in the manga is gone in the anime. Especially for the backgrounds, the cityscape, they move away from cartooniness toward 3D effects, and away from the starkness of black and white toward a busy, almost cheerful color scheme. It's beautiful to look at, but inappropriate for the story. (Here's the trailer: judge for yourself.)

The city ends up looking like a nostalgic vision of Osaka or Tokyo in the '50s, a period that's coming in for a lot of good-old-days treatment in Japan right now (check out this trailer for a recent hit movie that encapsulates the trend, Always). And there is a little nostalgia built into the story, but when the characters are all running around talking about how the city is hell, and it's killing their souls, it shouldn't look quite so golden and homey.

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