Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tekon kinkuritu (Michael Arias, 2006)

Michael Arias' Tekon kinkurito (2006) is, in a word, a wonder. Set in Treasure Town, a nonexistent Japanese city that seems to be part Hong Kong (the crowding buildings), part Bombay (the clock tower that every hour disgorges a gigantic moving figure of the god Ganesha), part Mediterranean Europe (the brightly painted plaster, the canals) and part Tokyo of the Showa era (1926 to 1989--the train, the bridges, the alleys, everything else), the film opens literally with a bird's eye view of the city, diving down to skim the canal water, gliding past various skyscrapers and landmarks to drop down at a specific intersection, and begin its story.

It's a brief opening shot, nowhere as long as what they're capable of nowadays, but Arias (an American filmmaker working in Japan) doesn't seem to be after feats of technical virtuosity, at least not beyond a certain point; it felt more like what the bird was doing--a kind of stretching of one's wings, a brief showing-off of one's ability, a heedless, seamless, effortless demonstration of integration between breathtaking three-dimensional background animation (certain parts of the shot, as when the camera wheels to take in the cityscape below, look as if it were taken with a fisheye lens mounted on a spinning helicopter) and traditional two-dimensional hand-drawn animation.

Ditto with the sound, whether it's the murmur of a city hundreds of feet up in the air, or the creaking clockwork of a giant elephant lumbering slowly to life, or the sudden hum of force when a seven foot tall assassin's gravitational or magnetic or whatever field switches on--director Arias seems to know how to use ambient sound and the comparative lack of music or dialogue to achieve maximum drama.

Add to this Arias' superb sense of action--and I don't mean the motion blur or jiggle to the frame added to make everything look as if it was shot by a handheld camera (that's just gimmickry). I mean the sudden bursts of violence, the pause to recover from a blow or shot, the second or so spent at finding the proper footing (feet wide apart, knees slightly bent), hefting a heavy pipe in hand for better grip, heaving it high above the head prior to bringing it down with all one's force--Arias with the use of timing and carefully animated movement and the occasional sound effect is able to suggest mass and inertia, and the bone-cracking impact of both when directed at a single point in time and space.

But it's more than just animated movement--beyond the visual dazzle is a story of two youths, lost in a city and clinging to one another, feeling truly lost when eventually separated. Black is the older of the two; White, while eleven years of age, is still childlike and needs Black to tie his shoelaces for him, even if both are immensely strong and able to literally leap tall buildings in a single bound (call them Japanese versions of Ed, Edd 'n Eddy, only superpowered). Arrayed against them are rival youth gangs with equally colorful names (Dusk and Dawn, Choco and Vanilla), the Yakuza, and a sinister corporate newcomer named Mr. Snake who seems able to call upon heavily armed seven-foot-high purple monsters whenever needed, and is determined to turn Treasure Town into the latest Kiddie Kastle amusement park.

An old man points out the obvious: that Black needs White to balance him out, otherwise he becomes lost to mindless nihilism and near-random violence. Granted, the film is no Los Olvidados (Luis Bunuel, 1950), where Bunuel put onscreen some of the cruelest acts of violence and nihilism I've ever seen committed by children, without a single word of explanation or comment (but then few filmmakers have as consistently unflinching an eye as Bunuel)--but think of Black and White and possibly one other character this way: instead of several people encapsulating various traits, think of them as the same person at various stages of growth, innocence, maturity. Hence White as a younger Black, sans that unexplained scar (possibly it's gaining that scar that helped give Black such a volatile temperament)--not a totally outrageous theory, I think; remember that at least one character in the film is an embodiment of another character's future...,

Whatever; I do think the film isn't so much about black and white (or good and evil, peace and violence, or crime and justice, or so on and so forth) as it is about past and present--cue Rat, a high-ranking Yakuza who returns to Treasure Town after so many years. He's grown nostalgic for Treasure Town as it is, and gradually ceases to be; he treasures the disappearing past, and holds little but disdain for the colder, more professional, more calculating future (and what can be colder or more calculating than an amusement park, where every ride, every facade and concession stand, every bush and tree and park bench for crying out loud, is precisely placed to stimulate maximum dissatisfaction, maximum desire for consumption, in unwitting youth?).

Rat's sensibility parallels Black's; both are a pair of consciousnesses acutely aware of what they're missing or lost, and both yearn for oblivion (one in death, another in violence) . When it comes to broad statements of the film's theme (have to remember this is a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, and that anything in the film's story is necessarily a drastic condensation of the manga's) instead of the old man's monologue, I prefer Rat and Black's conversation atop a tower, where Rat confides what he sees to Black ("Treasure Town will never be what it was...Even if we stop, the city keeps going"), and Black replies, point blank: "You're going to die. I can see it in your face."). Black ultimately struggles between accepting a nihilistic future, and recovering something of an innocent past.

Interesting that Matsumoto's artwork, or what I've seen of it, recalls the ultradetailed art of European comics and Heavy Metal than it does traditional Japanese manga art (maybe American expat Arias is the perfect filmmaker for this after all); interesting that the film isn't so much concerned with showing the contrast of black and white as it is in crowding together the influence of past, present and future (hence the density of the city's details; the additional characters leaping in from fantasies, or from the future; the frequent flashbacks into Rat's past). If Tekon kinkurito (the title is a child's mispronunciation of the Japanese words for steel-reinforced concrete) is such a complex, bewildering experience, that may be because it's a variety of timelines being told at the same time, vying for the eye's attention. Wonderful film.

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