Reviewby Justin Sevakis,
Black and White are two street urchins. They have no home, no parents… only each other. They steal, mug, beat people… It's not the yakuza that owns Treasure town, it's Black (the smart, bitter one) and White (the dumb, innocent one). But when a developer wants to turn the dark, ugly streets into an amusement park, he brings about challengers that even Black will have trouble against!
Tekkon Kinkreet is a first in the anime world: It's the first time an American director has ever gone and directed an entire piece of animation in Japan, at the studio. While the anime industry is no stranger to creating animated works under American creative staff, no American has ever gone over and gotten a film produced, financed and made completely within the Japanese system.
Unfortunately, the person at the helm clearly has no clue what he is doing.
The manga of Tekkon Kinkreet (released by Viz a decade ago as “Black and White”, though the actual title is a pun on steel concrete reinforcements and deep relationships) is a virtuoso work by Taiyo Matsumoto. A three volume opus on violence and the healing power of friendship between two very demented homeless children, it's a deeply surreal and disturbing portrait of both urban and human decay. It echoed the plight of the city at the center of urban renewal booms, the sort we saw in New York and Boston in the 90's.
The anime version of Tekkon Kinkreet has been in the works for some time. Being a huge fan of the manga, I followed every development with great excitement. Michael Arias, a computer art programmer whose cel-shading software is now used by Ghibli, had previously helped produce segments for The Animatrix. He'd been trying to get Matsumoto's manga made into an anime for years, but after director Koji Morimoto lost interest in the project he went to the famed Studio 4°C and tried to get the ball rolling to make it himself.
Studio 4°C is quickly becoming one of Japan's most important animation studios, often acting as a training ground for important new talent. Here, they do not disappoint -- the visuals are so sumptuous, so detailed and lively, that I'm hardpressed to think of a better looking anime… period. There is no problem with the visuals. The problem is, frankly, the lack of attention the director seems to have paid to everything else.
Arias has somehow rendered a very emotional, very human story inert and lifeless; his approach to dramatic timing is clinical. It's as if he's debugging code rather than telling a story. Scenes that should leave us breathless fall completely flat, such as the beautiful opening fly-by of the city. Arias plods from cut to cut relentlessly, allowing us no time to digest or pay attention to body language. Characters who were central to the manga are still treated like they are, but they barely get enough screen time to do anything important, so what scenes they have left fly by seemingly nonsensically.
Where the manga carried a surreal, intense look, with its odd camera angles, unflattering shots of White's wide-open mouth, and Dr. Seuss buildings, Arias instead opted for subtley rendered, nearly photorealistic depictions of urban decay, awash in the earthy tones of rust, dirt and faded paint. Matsumoto's striking characters have been reworked with the tentative lines of newbie character designer Shoujirou Nishimi, who pretty much apes the art style of Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game, Kemonozume). All of these are beautiful, but they have the side effect of softening the feel of the entire world. There are hints of surrealism here, such as Black and White's ability to abandon gravity at will, but only when necessary to the plot, and even then little importance is paid to it. Where the manga was a visual punch to the face and Matsumoto's characters were genuinely scary, these designs work against what should be a harsh environment and tough characters. Even the violence itself -- the story's most important element -- pulls its punches.
The screenplay, written by Arias' friend and fellow newbie Anthony Weintraub, has nearly as many clichés as it has lines of dialogue. And it has a LOT of dialogue -- in fact, nearly every scene is crammed to the brim, to the point where we're well into the second hour before the characters shut up at all. Amusingly, the Japanese translation is fairly liberally rewritten, and in the process filters out many of its more egregious lines of direct-to-video movie dialogue (mostly because such clichés don't EXIST in Japanese). However, the subtitles are actually the original script, so that's what English speakers get to experience.
Together, those failings conspire to give us 110 minutes of non-stop dialogue, pounded out lifelessly in rhythm with little to no regard for its meaning or its undertones. Forget about subtext or symbolism, Arias can't even keep his mind on the story. The backgrounds are peppered with homages to artists ranging from Edvard Munch to Thai traditional shadow puppets, but to no effect or importance. The music, a barely passable electronic score, forces whatever emotion is appropriate for the scene down our throats like a children's cartoon.
Just as we're reaching the turning point of the manga, Arias gives up entirely and resorts to a 10 minute visual firework show; a breathless display of heaven and hell utilizing what must be the latest techniques in CG and compositing. As a main character's whole being is hanging in the balance, it's clear that the director is more preoccupied with showing us cool tricks. The bittersweet ending is then reduced to a sappy conclusion befitting of a Disney Channel original movie. The bare outline of Matsumoto's story remains only as a testament to what could have been a great film.
Tekkon Kinkreet is the spiritual successor to X: The Movie. It's very pretty and pushes the envelope of visuals animators can create, and does so at the expense of anything that makes us care. It's a vanity project by a computer artist, and consequently, it's entertaining only as a CG demo. Perhaps I would use this to show off a new TV set, provided my sound system hadn't arrived yet. Or at least, I would if seeing it didn't fill me with disappointment and regret.
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : C
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : C-
+ The artistry is the sort that made Studio 4°C famous
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