Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review - Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White

Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White
by Taiyo Matsumoto
2008 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material (Japan)

Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White made a bad first impression on me. It opens with a long and completely disjointed sequence that flickers back and forth between several scenes and times which never seem to connect properly. Thirty pages in and I wasn't sure I could make it through the rest. Then things changed: Matsumoto found a plot, his artistic style became anchored by it, and I could start developing an appreciation for the characters. By the time it reached it's strange conclusion I had thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Black and White are a pair of orphan children who live in what I can only think of as the platonic ideal of the metropolis. The idealized city of Treasure Town is their playground but the city has been changing. Plans are in motion to transform the lively but grimy city into a gentrified but soulless place. Black and White themselves are tied to the city in a spiritual way and as it changes they change as well.

Adding another layer of complication Black and White aren't simply names; it is also their nature. They are polar opposites. White is innocent and good hearted while Black is on the verge of giving in completely to rage. Black lashes out at those he sees as threatening White and White is his own lost way tries to keep Black from going too far.

That's the tension that really drives Tekkonkinkreet and makes it worth reading. Black is a child who is on the verge of becoming a monster. He's already a violent thug but he's pushing the edge of being much worse. White a pure soul and also his anchor that keeps Black's motives pure. There are physical threats from the gangsters and other forces that come against them but the core of the story is a child about to lose his soul.

Superficially it's a gangster story with a bit of children's adventure. Black and White run around their city getting into scraps and helping their friends while mobsters do their dealings behind the scene. The spiritual themes grow more and more pronounced until they are out right stated at the climax. It's a bit blunt and it results in a trippy conclusion that manga has a bad reputation for but in this case since the themes were so strongly worked into the fabric of the story I think Matsumoto made it work.

The other big theme in the story is how the world changes and Matsumoto does this both in the changing landscape of the city and the shifting characters. Black and White are changing but so are the gangs who control much of the city and police who challenge them. No one is untouched by the shifts in the city and characters who were established as antagonists do not remain so (or at least not the same antagonists they were initially). The only ones whose character isn't fully explored are the agents of change themselves.

Do not expect a lot of explanation out of Tekkonkinkreet. The further in you get the stranger things become and none them are ever addressed. The strangeness of the characters and city are part of the theme; for the story the mysteries don't matter. If you need everything explained then you will be greatly disappointed at the end of the book.

His artwork is a bit of a shock to the system. Matsumoto isn't one for the usual manga conventions. His artwork is jagged instead of sleek and his use of perspective is almost cubist. His cityscapes have a style that is distinctive; they're not bleak but they are harsh. I wound up appreciating the art as part of the style of the book but it's not going to be for everyone.

So there are some rough edges to Tekkonkinkreet butI think those are rough edges worth dealing with. This is a story very much in the urban fantasy mold but its fantastic elements are so low key that when they do bubble to the surface it's a shock since we've nearly forgotten them. I wound up liking it a lot and I would have enjoyed a longer story exploring these characters and their city.