It’s difficult to write about Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White without explicitly comparing it to the movie that it inspired. I was actually worried the book might not measure up, since Tekkonkinkreet so far outpaced any other animated production I’ve seen this year, and so comparing it with the book might seem unfair. But TK:B&W was written and drawn by Taiyo Matsumoto, whose other works have stood up wonderfully on their own (No. 5) and have also been adapted into live-action films of distinction (Blue Spring, Ping Pong). If Tekkonkinkreet was such a wonderful movie, it was only because the book itself had that much going for it.
Now we have proof of that, in the form of the comic that inspired the film, and I plan on filing it on my shelf along with Sexy Voice and Robo, Hiroki Endo’s Eden, and Robin Nishi’s as-yet-untranslated Mind Game (also made into a stupefyingly wonderful movie, by the same animation studio that brought Tekkonkinkreet to life). I should point out that Black and White was originally published in a set of standalone volumes back in 2000, but those have been out of print for some time, and so having them all restored to print in a single omnibus edition is hugely welcome.
And yet I still had a hard time setting the movie aside, if only because its blazing colors and eye-popping CGI-fueled camerawork are so much more of a gut-level punch than Matsumoto’s highly simplified, almost childlike black-and-white artwork. It’s tempting to say that the comic was the rough draft and the movie the final product, but I can’t do that: the comic stood on its own for years long before the film was ever put into production. I almost regret not being able to read the comic first, and letting that be my baseline for appreciating this story in both its forms. It’s a story full of strange contrasts — primitive-looking but keenly observed, tough in the things it depicts but heartful in the ways it understands them.
The story in the comic is essentially the same, though. Two urchin boys, Black and White, one cunning and the other childish, roam the streets of the patchwork megalopolis named “Treasure Town” and indulge in petty crimes for cash. The police tolerate them, if only because they themselves have bigger problems to worry about — like the return of bigtime gangsters with plans to remake the city in their image. Black has no tolerance for those who would change “his” city from being the place he’s always known, and sets out to reclaim it from them. This turns out to be nowhere as straightforward as he would like, for in the process he and White are split up. The gangsters send a cadre of bizarre assassins after them, and Black confronts the monster that’s been flowering within himself — the “minotaur,” as he calls it, with a thirst for blood and nothing else.
Many of the scenes in the book and movie unfold identically, but the movie took a few non-destructive liberties here and there for the sake of compressing things a bit. Example: a fight that opens the film originally took place nearly halfway through the book, but it makes a bit more narrative sense to put it up front, since it conveniently explains a good many things about the characters involved. The rhythm of the book, the pacing of scenes, and the way things unfold is also markedly different — it’s more episodic, with each of the book’s thirty-plus chapters clocking in at about 20 pages or so, but by no means inferior. It’s just reflective of the way Matsumoto put his story together on paper, as opposed to how director Michael Arias and his screenwriter Anthony Weintraub (both of whom contribute some thoughtful comments on the story in an introduction) chose to assemble things.
Matsumoto’s own storytelling style also stands out from the way the filmmakers operate — he likes to have things come together from the collusion of many different details, rather than just lay everything out on the table for you all at once in a neat line. I liked how, for instance, we rather casually learn about the way Black and White interact with everyone in their neighborhood, and in the same way Matsumoto drops in countless other details about the city as lead-ins to events that are the meat of the story. Things like this give TK:B&W a texture and a complexity that a lot of other manga don’t have: we’re not just seeing the story of these two boys, or the adults who they see as being in their way, or the other adults who are trying to watch over them in their own clumsy fashion, or the people on the periphery of what’s going on. It’s about all of them at once, and the whole of the world they inhabit, and the art and storytelling fuse to convey that in a way that you can’t mistake for anyone else’s approach.
TK:B&W is manga as an art form — not just entertainment or a storytelling venue, but a way of expressing something visually. It doesn’t look like other manga, but there’s a reason for that, and if you’re curious about what manga can be apart from things like Bleach or Naruto (or if you already are), then track it down and lose yourself in Treasure Town — not just once, but again and again, as a story this layered and complex demands you ought to.