Though they’ve been around since the mid-’80s, Studio 4°C is emerging as a pretty exciting Japanese animation house. Their 2004 genre-bending adventure Mind Game has already achieved cult status here, and Tekkon Kinkreet (screened Sunday at the VC film festival) could easily do the same: a lavish urban fantasy based on the acclaimed Black & White manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, it’s a work of rare technical ambition that also manages compelling drama.
Both films combine epic detail with psychedelic flourishes–their stories shift fluidly between real worlds and dream worlds, just as the animation is fixed between hand-drawn sketches and multilayered CGI. The content is aimed at older teens and adults, with a darker, Heavy Metal vibe that includes elements of eroticism and violence comparable to Hollywood thrillers; a gruesome cafÈ scene near the beginning of Mind Game almost derailed the film for me, but Tekkon Kinkreet manages to hold its extremes at bay while remaining true to the yakuza genre and the gritty story it’s telling.
Black and White are young street urchins who form a kind of two-person gang who know the Treasure Town metropolis so well they virtually fly across rooftops, swinging down into back alleys to take out unwanted gangsters or anyone else threatening to disrupt the city. They are not casual superheroes; both kids are nursing deep emotional wounds linked to a city in makeover; Black is a tough adolescent who protects White, a much younger boy with a carefree spirit and unrestrained imagination. When an evil entrepreneur and his support network of yakuza and unidentified flying terminators spearhead urban renewal, chaos erupts.
The film is a visual wonder, and I say that as jaded as can be regarding pat futuristic metropolises (metropoli?). Treasure Town not only has character, it is a character, cobbled together from vintage Japanese advertisements and pan-Asian architectural motifs, it shifts in atmosphere as the story develops, and even–through its copious displays of signage and graffiti–subtly comments on the action.
I should say at the outset that I haven’t read Matsumoto’s manga (which will be rereleased in English in September), but by all accounts it’s an enthralling 600-page masterpiece. The plot here, however, feels somewhat choppy and superficial, and it’s easy to recognize it as an abbreviated version of something much larger and complex. Minor characters seem superfluous, and their motivations aren’t always clear. Why, for example, does a brutal yakuza gangster who was severely injured by Black then oppose his assassination? Why does the entrepreneur send his assassins inside his Disneyesque theme park, knowing it will render panic? What is the dramatic purpose of the aging detective who saunters through the film spouting philosophical proverbs? Thankfully, such hiccups never wreck the movie, which is ultimately an involving film that dabbles in questions of human duality and personal redemption. Will Black’s social rage and unchecked violence condemn him to a life of vengeance, or will his love for White prevent him from falling off the deep end?
The film has generated buzz as the first Japanese anime feature directed by an American, Michael Arias, who worked his way up developing software for Hollywood CGI films to producing The Animatrix, and it’s effective and well-mounted. Arias’ angles and compositions are uniformally inventive and striking, and most impressively, he incorporates a bevy of live action camera techniquesósignificant “handheld” framing, long tracking shots through corridors, rack focusing and shifting depths of field–that generate considerable immediacy and environmental realism (despite the obvious hand-drawn artifice). More than simple technological advances, these elements have long been untapped by feature animation due to their inability to be storyboarded–they’re traditional luxuries of live action spontaneity. For all the accolades bestowed upon Alfonso CuarÛn’s digitally-composited tracking shots in Children of Men, Arias’ techniques here are arguably greater achievements.
The climax of Tekkon Kinkreet enters Alfred Bester territory, evoking the convoluted inner turmoil of the characters with abstract, psychedelic sequences that offer at least as much vicarious, hallucinogenic pleasures as the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, a lot of the film has a Besterian feel with its genre underpinnings, narrative drive, psychological/obsessional emphases, and elaborate setting. If it doesn’t quite achieve the science fiction master’s flair for seamless plotting and colorful dialogue, it makes up for it by merging highly stylized animation with live action aesthetics in remarkably immersive ways.