In 2007 VIZ Media published Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White (ISBN: 1421518678) which collected and translated, in its entirety, the manga series Tekkonkinkurīto (鉄コン筋クリート) which writer and artist Taiyo Matsumoto had begun in 1993 in the seinen weekly Big Comic Spirits and completed in late 1994.
The story is about two boys, Black (Kuro クロ) and White (Shiro シロ) who live on the streets of a convoluted, decaying and vibrant urban island called Treasure Town (Takara Machi 宝町). Treasure Town gives the impression of being constructed of layer upon layer of urban strata – a chaotic confluence of development, adaptation, public and private desire seething with complexity.
The word tekkonkinkreet is an amalgam of two altered word; tekken which means reinforced steel and konkurito the loan word for concrete. To quote the slip jacket of the 2007 VIZ Media english translation “Tekkonkinkreet is a play on Japanese words meaning “a concrete structure with an iron frame,” and it suggests the opposing images of concrete cities against the strength of imagination.”
Much of the visual impact of Tekkonkinkreet comes from the detail Matsumoto’s puts into his representation of Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s panels in Tekkonkinkreet are strikingly adherent to simple black and white line work with only very judicious use of pale and hand-stippled grey tones. He relies almost exclusively on his distinctive wobbly lines to illustrate the streets and panoramic views of the city. Matsumoto’s control of depth and perspective and the sheer weight of the detail he includes in many of the panels makes the visual language of the city an omnipresent part of the narrative.
The page design is often quite minimal with a classic approach to panel shape and placement. More emphasis seems to have been placed on the arrangement of black and white fields on each page then playing with the panel configuration. This simplicity contributes an equilibrium that balances the detailed content of the panels.
Another aspect of Matsumoto’s technique is his ability to represent coherent physical action. Action sequences and the efficacy the complex interactions of the multiple characters in them are fundamental to comic books. Tekkonkinkreet has many elaborate and visually saturated action sequences but Matsumoto’s page and panel composition can be easily parsed. Regardless of how far chase sequences range – and Matsumoto takes full advantage of the arena Treasure Town provides – or how frenetic the action and the level of surrounding detail the flow of action is clearly communicated.
Matsumoto’s character design, particularly that of the two boys, maintains a balance between symbolic resonance and credible street fashion. Local gang members’ uniforms simultaneously evoke science fiction comics, punk and sports equipment while a menacing foreign investor and his henchmen are – unspecifically but recognizably – imbued with sinister Otherness.
If art alone was the criteria for judging Tekkonkinkreet it could be considered brilliant but the narrative itself is complex, fun and meaningful. While Kuro and Shiro’s symbiotic friendship is at the centre of the story there is also fully realized narrative threads that focus on a young yakuza and his mentor, the odd couple neighborhood cops and the mutation of Treasure Town itself – sentimentalized and reviled – constantly shifting around its inhabitants.
In late 2007 when this edition was first released “Jog” posted a very knowledgeable and comprehensive review on the Savage Critic website. It is, however, full of SPOILERS and comes with the WARNING that if, like me, you get a frisson of bliss-out energy from reading Tekkonkinkreet Jog’s dissection of both its charms and shortcomings may replace your glee with existential angst and self-doubt.
In 2008 the VIZ Media edition of Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White won the Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Japan.
Taiyo Matsumoto’s homepage on his publisher, Shogakukan’s website.
Images: panel from Tekkonkinkreet (manga), cover image from Tekkonkinkreet (manga), panel from Tekkonkinkreet (manga) [copyright 2007 by Viz Media]