Taiyo Matsumoto doesn’t do cute. His characters are spindly grotesques, complete with scars and runny noses. Yet they’re not, it must be said, without their own considerable charm: when the Uniqlo UT Store in Harajuku released a line of T-shirts featuring Black and White, the protagonists of "Tekkon Kinkreet," they sold out almost immediately.
Originally released in Japan in 1993-1994, "Tekkon Kinkreet" (the name is a pun on the Japanese for “reinforced concrete”) still holds a special place in the hearts of the nation’s more discerning manga readers. This long overdue English version, compiling all three volumes of the original, comes hot on the heels of Studio 4°C’s visually stunning anime adaptation. Hopefully it’ll go some way to getting Matsumoto the overseas recognition he deserves.
The comic is set in Treasure Town, a fictional metropolis that condenses the scruffiest elements of Tokyo and Osaka. Black and White are a pair of orphans who lord it over the city’s streets, thrashing anyone who pisses them off or has a wristwatch they like the look of. The two enjoy a ying-yang relationship: White is a sing-song savant, naive and emotionally pure; Black is older, wiser and a heck of a lot moodier. Both excel at beating the bejeezus out of people—some of the manga’s most thrilling sequences have them quite literally soaring over rooftops before crashing down on some unfortunate’s head.
Theirs is a rough form of justice. When a group of yakuza tries to move into the area, Black doesn’t take kindly. “This is my town,” he spits, before sticking one in the eye with a bottle of Wild Turkey and following up with a drainpipe. Point taken.
However, the arrival of a sinister crew of developers who plan to give Treasure Town a permanent facelift puts the pair’s existence in the balance. Black and White are targeted by a trio of Mongol assassins who share their gravity-defying abilities but are also a mite tougher. Still, for Black, the greatest enemy might be the darkness within himself — which, in the final third of the book, manifests itself in very physical form.
Matsumoto has created a mighty addictive universe, with its smirking mobsters, ambivalent cops and sage, philosophical bums. Treasure Town is a mess of billboards, overhead wires and wonky buildings that’ll be immediately familiar to any Tokyo resident. But it’s also brimming with oddball touches, be it the hippo sitting on a train with her shopping bags, the alligators in the river, or the cats, mice, turtles and lizards that pop up in the odd panel with a “Hm?” or a “Huh?” There’s never a perfunctory moment, and the comic repays multiple readings.
Matsumoto was heavily influenced by French comic artists such as Moebius, and his stark ink work and gnarly designs have as much in common with Western comics as they do with most manga. His passion for sports (this is the guy who also gave us Ping Pong and the boxing-themed Zero) shines through in the action scenes, which are more exciting than most movies, never mind comics.
Manga purists should note that this edition has been flipped to read left to right, though to my mind this hasn’t really compromised the original. Lillian Olsen’s translation does a mighty good job of capturing the coarse humor of the Japanese version, too. I’m not sure that White really needed to be recast as a lisping hillbilly, but that’s a minor gripe. Otherwise, it’s a pleasure to see such an important bit of manga finally made available to an English-speaking audience.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today