And once again I run the risk of devolving into blathering fandom. Tekkonkinkreet is the sort of thing where you set any and all criticism aside and just let the movie happen to you. If every anime was this visually ambitious and this soulful under it all, I’d be out of a job and wouldn’t mind it one bit.
The name Tekkonkinkreet is a mash-up of two words — tekkin (“iron structure”) and konkuriito (“concrete”) — and it’s a fitting title for an urban fable of two orphan boys who rule over the modern-day megalopolis “Treasure Town” with their fists and wits. The adult world — especially the two police detectives most familiar with their antics — look the other way while they pick pockets and shake down the unwary for loose change. To them the city’s like one great big parkour course, and in the movie’s flabbergasting opening sequence they go sprinting across rooftops, cartops and utility-pole-tops, sparring with rival gang members and gleefully thumbing their noses at gravity.
The older boy, Black (Kuro) is the more streetwise and outwardly violent; the younger, White (Shiro) is a four-year-old in an eleven-year-old’s body, fascinated by his own little world of private games and childlike diversions. Kuro’s been keeping watch over Shiro every since they ran into each other years ago, and they have vague plans about eventually getting away for … well, somewhere else. But in the meantime Kuro’s determined to protect his brother — and the city itself — from unwanted interference.
They don’t have to wait long before trouble shows up in the form of “The Rat,” or Nezumi, an old-time yakuza who’s come back into town to run things his way. Nezumi is far too reflective and even kindly to be in this business: he has the resigned, philosophical attitude of a college professor, not the grasping worldliness of a gangster. His underling Kimura is better suited to this kind of work — not because he has any real germ of ambition, but because unlike his boss he actually has something to lose: his girlfriend’s pregnant, and for the first time he’s thinking about a life that doesn’t involve splitting people’s heads open. The boys themselves have no father, except for maybe the old man who sneaks them into the bathhouse.
Nezumi’s initial plan is just to kick the boys and their gangs off the street, but then Kuro confronts Kimura at the gangster’s own office and trashes the place — and Nezumi’s own boss (everyone has someone higher up than them in this world) decides to try a different approach. He brings in “The Snake,” or Hebi, an always-smiling, white-skinned apparition of a man whose plan is to develop a huge kiddie theme park in Treasure Town. Why harass noodle-shop owners for petty change when you can go legit and make orders of magnitude more money? Hebi also knows a weak man when he sees one, and he soon offers Kimura a chance to become a partner in his escapade for the small cost of getting rid of his mentor.
As for getting rid of the boys once and for all, Hebi’s subcontracted that job to a triumvirate of tall, nonverbal killers. One of them greviously wounds Shiro, and the two boys are split up for their own safety — Shiro becoming a ward of one of the policemen (himself unmarried and childless, who sees him as a surrogate son of sorts), while Kuro sinks into a kind of dementia where he imagines the blackest part of himself, “the Minotaur,” taking on a life of its own and doing things that leave the other criminal elements of the city in the dust. Their greatest battles end up not being with enemies in the streets, but with their own hearts — and I suspect many people who walk in expecting a rock’em-sock’em confrontation are going to be thrown for more than a couple of loops by the movie’s final stretch.
But that’s a big part of why I ended up not just liking but loving the film: it’s not just about the splashy visuals or the kinetic motion of bodies, but how two hearts can beat as one, sometimes alone and sometimes together. The movie’s full of dualities and oppositions on many levels — the Black and White of the main characters (the original Taiyo Matsumoto manga was named “Black and White”); the criminal yang and the law-enforcement yin; the orphan urchins running wild underfoot (and overhead) vs. the strictures of the adult world. And it’s also how those opposites are ultimately reconciled — how the boy someday has to grow into a man, and how we all face our worst enemies inside ourselves.
I suspect the strength of the movie as a story is part of why I was able to get this far into the review without once mentioning the visuals. Shame on me. The look of Tekkonkinkreet ranks right up there with the likes of Akira, Metropolis, and Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust in terms of not just what they were able to show but how they showed it — how they brought the characters and their environments to full life. The animators have made Treasure Town into a place so real I felt like I could hop on a plane and go there: every back alley, rooftop, vertical sign, and front stoop has been created with a stupefying amount of detail and care. I dropped $35 for one of the three (I think there’s actually four) artbooks produced from the movie’s design team, and spent hours just staring at each page. The production company, Studio 4°C*, was also responsible for The Animatrix, and in fact Tekkonkinkreet’s director, Michael Arias, was part of that project as well. Studio 4°C was also responsible for Mind Game, my current vote for the single best animated film almost no one in the U.S. has ever seen, and the short film Noiseman Sound Insect, which packs an entire feature-length movie’s amount of plot and character and incident into 15 minutes.
I need to add that this isn’t a perfect film; some bits of plot are either not adequately explained or just fall by the wayside. Why, for instance, does Nezumi take months on end to track down Kuro and Shiro, and why are the men he hires for that job so unbelievably incompetent? Why do the boys’ abilities, and the killers’ as well, go almost totally uncommented on except in passing? And so on. But these are nitpicks and not fatalities. They don’t make the core drama — the tug-of-war between and over Kuro and Shiro’s spirits — any less affecting. That’s the real action in this movie, anyway; their leaping across the rooftops is just the most outward way it’s expressed.