Sunday, July 25, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Tekkonkinkreet

Even as Studio Ghibli made a surprising flop that year with Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), 2006 was a highly competitive year for Japanese anime thanks to Madhouse’s double-treat Paprika (directed by the great Satoshi Kon) and Toki o Kakeru Shōjo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), helmed by one-time Ghibli reject and current anime wunderkind Mamoru Hosoda.

But to be completely honest, a little-heralded feature by an unknown foreign director stole the entire 12 months’ viewing pleasure when it screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival that October.

One of the causes for the subversive impact of this movie, Tekkonkinkreet, was its sound track – it gloriously debunked the Japanese practice of using a J-Pop band, Joe Hisaishi, and/or a rising Japanese teenage pretty face chanteuse doing the score, or even opting (as in the cases of Appleseed and the Ergo Proxy TV series) for a famous international DJ-cum-band, like Radiohead, on the opening and/or closing titles.

Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート) instead boasts a stunningly experimental sound track: no surprise, really, when you consider that it’s been composed by eclectic British duo Ed Handley and Andy Turner – aka Plaid, a one-time backing band for Björk.

Yet while Plaid is known to people who’re into improvisational electronic music, as well as open-minded patrons of European digital-art festivals – not to mention journalists writing about music distant from the mainstream – they’re otherwise not famous at all.

Still, “I'm a huge fan of Plaid,” admitted Michael Arias, the director of Tekkonkinkreet, when I interviewed him back in 2006.

If Arias’ moniker doesn’t sound as Japanese as it should, that’s because he’s an expat American. “I’ve actually been here in Tokyo for 15 years, which is probably longer than most of my co-workers have lived in this city,” he said.

And while Tekkonkinkreet was Arias’ feature movie directorial debut, he’s hardly a novice. Before moving to Japan, and since, he has been involved in tweaking the CG on movies as far a field as James Cameron’s The Abyss, David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, and the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy.

Arias also produced, helped supervise, and worked on the CGI for 'Beyond', the best segment of the Matrix animation off-shoot The Animatrix, as well as on another of the segments, “Second Renaissance”, back in 2003.

His lack of notoriety is surprising, given the fact that this film was a hugely innovative anime putsch produced by Studio 4°C – the junta behind Katsuhiro Otomo, Koji Morimoto, and Satoshi Kon’s collaborative movie Memories (1995), Otomo and Tensai Okamura’s Stink Bomb (1995) and Morimoto’s Eikyuu Kazoku (Eternal Family, 1997/98).

Masahiko Kubo and Chie Uratani, who were the joint animation directors here, worked on Trigun and Hayao Miyazaki movies respectively, and art director Shinji Kimura previously cut his teeth on ‘80s anime classics like Otomo’s Akira and Mamoru Oshii’s Tenshi no Tamago (Angel’s Egg).

Behind the scenes there’s been another pivotal 'crew' member: the guiding influence, support and inspiration of Studio 4°C’s resident enfant terrible, Koji Morimoto.

“I’m not sure that I’ll ever be able to muster that kind of energy again!” Arias confessed four years ago. And he kind of hasn’t, aside from the live-action movie Heaven’s Door (2009).

“At the time I had an incredibly talented and supportive crew working with me. A lot of effort and emotion went into each frame of the movie, and I’m enormously proud of what we achieved.”

Like the people behind the score (Plaid) Tekkonkinkreet is certainly inventive in tone and style; Pokémon this movie most certainly is not.

As it turns out, despite its innovative artistic bent, Tekkonkinkreet – like most Japanese anime – comes from that most traditional of anime source materials: manga. In this case it’s based on the comic created back in 1994 by Taiyo Matsumoto, the man also responsible for Ping Pong.

“I’ve been enamored since I first read it, about 10 years ago,” Arias said at the time of production. “It really speaks to me in so many ways.”

As in the original story, the movie relates the exploits of two enigmatic street-kids named Black and White – as well as the pivotal emotional relationship between them – and it’s set in a retro-futuristic Asian city that looks like Tokyo... but possibly isn’t.

“When I read it years ago, I thought no one could film Tekkonkinkreet, but the movie really took me to new places,” says experimental musician Kana Masaki.

In the words of the film’s director, these kids (our ad hoc heroes) are pitched in mortal combat not only against the local yakuza crime-lords, but “an extraterrestrial real estate mogul who plans to turn the town into an amusement park and ultimately dominate the world.”

“It’s a simple story,” Arias mused.

“I think it appeals on a universal level, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen any other movie quite like it – animated or not.”

Despite detractors I think that Tekkonkinkreet is one of the finest anime outings ever produced; quite possibly the over-the-time action quotient helps.

© 2006 Taiyo Matsumoto/Shogakukan, Aniplex, Asmik Ace,
Beyond C, dentsu, TOKYO MX
© 2007 Sony Pictures Digital Inc.


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