July 12, 2007

One of the most obnoxious things about Hollywood movies is the tendency to put kids in danger to mine a little extra anxiety from the audience. It's a cheap stunt, because bad things rarely happen to kids in Hollywood films. (Steven Spielberg is a serial offender here. Remember Short Round on the bridge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, or Tim climbing the soon-to-be-re-electrified fence in Jurassic Park? Right.)

There's none of that fake danger in Tekkon Kinkreet, the Studio 4°C film that opened the Fantasia film festival this year. The young protagonists live in a harsh, gritty world that gives no quarter, and that sometimes takes the movie to places that Hollywood movies fear to tread.

Tekkon Kinkreet is the story of Kuro and Shiro (whose names literally translate to Black and White), two of the many orphan children who prowl the streets of Treasure Town. Shiro, the younger of the two, is the innocent, while Kuro has no problem with getting his knuckles (or a length of pipe) bloody to protect him or their turf. In this mix are two cops (one older and wiser, who keeps an eye out for Kuro and Shiro, the other a young rookie); a young yakuza who's leading his boss's advance into Treasure Town; and a mysterious and sinister elfin character who aims to turn a fair chunk of Treasure Town into a massive theme park.

There's a lot going on in this movie, and every one of its 100 minutes is put to good use. The kids, the cops, the yakuza and the developer all have some sort of interplay between each other (sometimes with words, sometimes with violence, sometimes with both), but just as importantly, they each have some sort of interplay with the city itself. In fact, Tekkon Kinkreet is as much about our various relationships to the urban landscape as anything else.

Based on the Taiyo Matsumoto manga Black & White and directed by Michael Arias, Tekkon Kinkreet shares elements of other anime films that feature outsider children. Like Grave of the Fireflies, Kuro and Shiro have struck out on their own, with the older character willing to take on any burden to protect the younger's health and innocence. Like Akira, the movie dwells mostly among those who live in the city but who have dropped out of society. And like Kakurenbo, these kids' relationship with the urban landscape has little to do with its intended use, but is in many ways more intimate and more thorough than for ordinary citizens.

The movie looks fantastic, with Treasure Town a lush forest of rooftops, fire escapes, cables and signs. The characters who inhabit Treasure Town are angular, slope-shouldered, asymmetrical—they owe more in look to Mind Game than, say, Naruto—and fit right in with the bustling, chaotic city. I was quite surprised during the post-screening Q&A when an audience member implied that most of the film was clearly CG; not only because it's obviously not the case, but because if there's any film that proves it doesn't matter which elements are CG and which are hand-drawn, it's this one. The appropriate tool is used at the appropriate time, and it's put together not with the express intent of hiding the seams, but of making the scene work. The end result is something you'll want to repeatedly freeze-frame when the DVD comes out, but which you should catch on the big screen when its limited North American run starts on Friday, just to drink it all in.

Tekkon Kinkreet
Directed by Michael Arias
100 minutes
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet Limited Edition on DVD (Region 2) at YesAsia.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet on DVD at Amazon.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet soundtrack CD at Amazon.com
Buy Tekkon Kinkreet soundtrack remix CD at YesAsia.com

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