A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park.
There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path.
In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home.
Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground.
Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.
Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.
Original trailer (no subtitles)