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There was an article going around in Japan that talked about the current climate of animated films that aren’t big anime franchise films. After Your Name was a smash hit in 2016, the industry has been trying to find the next big Your Name hit, and unfortunately, or what was apparent from that article, the returns haven’t been promising when the big franchise films like Demon Slayer: Mugen Train and Jujutsu Kaisen 0 have been smash hits. That isn’t all true, with Belle becoming a financial hit, but it makes you hope that they do not regress into doing big IP-driven ONLY films. Now, we could talk about the fact that the industry all over the world keeps glomping onto the next big hit and trying to replicate it, and how chasing the trend first and making a good film second is always going to end in tragedy, but you know how the industry works. It takes action first without thinking about the long-term game. It’s a shame, because while making money is important, letting the art and the teams make something distinct is also important, because most franchise-based films are underwhelming. When you want to see something that looks like it goes off the beaten path, then you need to see films like Tekkonkinkreet.
Directed by Michael Arias, one of the first non-Japanese directors for a major Japanese-animated film, this film is written by Anthony Weintraub, and was animated at Studio 4°C. The story follows two young boys named Black and White, dubbed by Scott Menville and Kamali Minter. They live on the streets of Takarmuchi, a once-thriving metropolis that is now bloated and overrun with criminal gangs trying to take down one another. Black and White try to take control of the streets by protecting everyone from said gangs. Can the two boys survive these dangerous times inside a crumbling city? What else is this character-driven city hiding or dealing with?
While this is the part where we talk about the plot of the film, let’s instead focus on the standout feature of the film, the animation. If you were looking for something unique, then it would be tough to find something as distinct-looking as this film. The art direction was handled by Shinji Kimura, who also helped out in films like Children of the Sea and The Portrait Studio. Character designs were handled by Shojiro Nishimi, who also did character designs for MFKZ. They were able to translate the immensely detailed buildings and city life and blocky character designs from the original manga by Taiyo Matsumoto to life. Some moments in the film even go into this dream-like imagery that looks like it was all drawn by colored pencils. Even the action beats are as fluid as ever, despite the designs being blocky at points. The city feels intensely lived-in with so much of the city feeling like it’s falling apart. Most of the metal and buildings are covered in rust or chipped paint. There doesn’t seem to be much that isn’t overrun by industrial factories as the many civilians from the typical citizens, the different gangs, and everyone in-between give off vibes of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Shanghai, which were the direct inspirations for the city as they were looking for a Pan-Asian look. Even with the grime and roughness of the overall city via its visuals, there is a lot of love put into the world and how people love living there. The voice cast is also distinct because it’s more US-animation-driven than the usual anime dub casts you see in most Japanese animation. You have the likes of Scott Menville, Maurice LaMarche, John DiMaggio, Tom Kenny, Phil LaMarr, Dwight Schultz, Rick Gomez, Kamali Minter, David Lodge, Quinton Flynn, Alex Fernandez, Yuri Lowenthal, Kate Higgins, Steve Blum, Matt McKenzie, Crispin Freeman, and Dave Wittenberg. It’s a nice mix of what you would normally see in US and Japanese animation. The music is composed by the group Plaid, and they bring this minimal touch to the world mixed with some industrial and fantastical beats.
Now that we’ve got the talk of the visuals out of the way, what is this film actually about? It’s not that it’s a complicated story, it just follows more of a vibe or mood-like approach to its storytelling. It’s vastly different from what you would see back in 2006 and some would argue even now. Then again, with a film from the same studio that made Children of the Sea and is usually the origin of those fantastic anthology films like Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond, you should expect something off the beaten path. It’s more flowing and not in your face as we follow the two brothers and the police chasing after the multiple gangsters trying to squeak out a living in a world that is constantly changing. It brings back historical moments like the change from 1970s New York when it was filled to the brim with sex, drugs, and violence before it was cleaned up. The city around them is dying and pushing them out, but some love the city as it is, while reminiscing about what it was like back in the day. The loss of childhood innocence, freedom, and dealing with your personal demons is rampant throughout this film, as there are tales of kids that run and fight freely throughout the bustling city streets. Corruption slithers its way through the alleyways, and this is all while the two brothers at the center of this story are both at the forefront and at points on the sidelines to focus on everyone else. It results in a story that is working on a more emotional than logical level, and that will definitely turn off some people. It’s not the most cohesive story as it goes through the different seasons, and much of what can be interpreted by the audience is either hidden within the dialogue or through visual storytelling. You might not want to focus too much on a film’s plot to get everything, and it’s not the best-told story, but with everything listed above, it’s one of the easier to follow films, whereas the similar-looking Mind Game, which Masaaki Yuasa directed, was a touch more complicated to follow exactly what the story and themes were without breaking them down yourself. However, sometimes, you may want to simply watch a movie that’s an experience and hits a certain part of your brain that likes those less straightforward stories.
While its visuals and atmosphere may overtake the story and how the story is told, Tekkonkinkreet is a film that you don’t get too often and should be celebrated when we are all, as of right now, looking for films that are different from the big franchise fodder or tentpole releases. Yes, they might not always work out 100%, but no film is ever going to be quote on quote, “perfect.” Yes, that would be nice, but then every film would be boring. Wouldn’t you rather talk about a film that has some big hits and maybe some misses of varying sizes? At least you have more to talk about than just, it’s good, it’s bad, or something in the middle that doesn’t leave that much of an impact on your filmgoing experience. As of writing this film, there has been no re-release and there is a Blu-ray and DVD release, but the Blu-ray seems like it’s hitting that out-of-print situation where it is hitting absurd prices on Amazon and the like. It’s a shame, because this is a fantastic film, and you would hope a company like Discotek or GKIDS would re-release the film. Still, if you can get a hand on a copy out in the wild, you are in for one of the many examples of why animation is such a vibrant medium, and how it’s not just for kids. Now then, the next time ya see a review, you will be hanging out with DreamWorks The Bad Guys.
Rating: Go see it!