By definition, anime has always been a Japanese endeavor. Sure, the West has had its imitators, but the true classics have always come from Eastern filmmakers. 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is an unusual case in that it was directed by Michael Arias, an American who has lived and worked in Japan for more than a decade, building up his own anime street cred working as a Visual Effects Developer on 'Princess Mononoke' and as a CG Additional Sequence Director for the "Beyond" short from 'The Animatrix.'
The film itself is based on the twisted manga from Taiyo Matsumoto, and tells the deceptively simple story of two orphans named White and Black who live on the streets of a dreamlike city called Treasure Town. White is a savant of sorts -- an optimist who has trouble tying his own shoes. Black is an aggressive youth with a quick temper who will do anything to protect his brother. But their lives aren’t fun and games -- the boys form a gang that faces off against other factions on a regular basis. After a brutal confrontation with a local yakuza gang, Black inadvertently leaves a void in the city’s power structure. As a pale villain named Mr. Snake takes over with a platoon of genetically altered soldiers, Black and White have to face their new enemy and come to terms with their own purpose in Treasure Town.
In case you haven't seen it (or don’t remember), the "Beyond" segment in ‘The Animatrix’ dealt with a group of naïve children who stumble onto a “haunted house” that turns out to be an error in the Matrix. Like that satisfying short, the best thing about ‘Tekkon Kinkreet’ is the sweet relationship between the children. White's innocence is starkly contrasted by Black's need to survive and provide for his brother. The two boys have an unspoken understanding of their partnership and each one instinctually balances out the inadequacies and shortcomings of the other. Their love spills out to the city itself as the two become guardians, fighting to preserve everything that is decent about their streets. Granted, Arias spreads the symbolism a bit thick, but the boys’ relationship never feels forced.
The idea of codependency between positive and negative forces is relatively unfamiliar to western audiences. Most American and European religions make a point of classifying the two as good and evil -- we really don’t have anything similar to a concept of yin-and-yang. As such, many of the more subtle complexities of the lead characters in 'Tekkon Kinkreet' may escape Western sensibilities. On my own first viewing of the film, I honestly had trouble keeping up with its thematic complexities, but I was still fascinated by its exploration of these two extremes. The film nearly veers off course at times with its abundance of metaphysical allusions, but to his great credit, Arias manages to hold it all together. As the story progressed, I came to recognize layer upon layer of visual details and plot points that reveal the true purpose of the tale and make for an ultimately rewarding experience.
That being said, the real draw to 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is its exceptional animation and design work. Action scenes are chaotic, quiet conversations have kinetic energy, and city shots are beautiful. Despite its simplistic character designs, the animation feels more grounded than a typical anime or manga. Subtle character traits (like pauses in conversation and character tics) elevate this animated feature to the level of cinema. The exaggerated art style may be a turn off for some -- it occasionally pushed too far for my own taste -- but it has a strange consistency to its fluid movement that generally makes for an enjoyable experience.
All in all, 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is a striking powerhouse of animation and ideas. While the story and the metaphysics may test the patience of more anime fans, I found the film to be an intriguingly trippy examination of the positive and negative forces that have to coexist within each of us.
Sony’s Blu-ray slate has been more diverse than any of the other major studios, and to the studio’s great credit, it seems to treat even its most obscure releases with the extra care befitting a summer blockbuster. 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is no exception, boasting a truly exceptional 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer.
A vivid palette paints the screen with stable colors that showcase the imaginative stylings of the art design. I don't want to overstate things, but pausing the movie at any moment practically transforms the screen into a framed animation cel. The video in 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is clean and unhampered by print scratches, wavering, or other significant source noise. Contrast is dead on, blacks are inky, and the linework reveals every nuance of the artists' pencils and paintbrushes. The CG blends nicely into the rest of the image (even though a higher framerate makes the CG elements feel slightly disjointed, as is common with modern 2D/3D animation), while the increased resolution improves upon the image offered by the solid standard DVD.
On the downside, fine detail is sharp to a fault -- the thinnest lines (especially those around character mouths and eyes) occasionally exhibit minor pixelation. By the same token, I caught glimpses of a few compression artifacts in some of the original background files (the artifacts are static, revealing them to be native to the print rather than a product of the transfer). These small distractions aside, 'Tekkon Kinkreet' is a strong demonstration of the benefits animated films can derive from a high definition presentation.
'Tekkon Kinkreet' features a Japanese uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps) that does a wonderful job of keeping pace with the visuals. This dual layer disc also includes a decent (but mildly whiny) English dub and a less impressive Japanese language track in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (640 kbps).
Dialogue is crisp and well prioritized, hovering neatly across the front channels. It never retreats from the soundscape during chaotic scenes, and violent sound effects have a nauseating squish that ground them in reality. The track’s ambiance and acoustics are worth noting as well. The city lives and breathes within the rear speakers, and the soundfield is full and open. Street noise is believeable. Above-average channel accuracy helps impart the illusion of real objects in a clearly-defined space. Pans are faultless, helping the viewer believe that he is moving within the movie’s environment. Dynamics are also better than the norm, adding heft to low-end tones and stability to high end elements. The LFE channel doesn't get much of a workout, but it does make itself known every now and then. For the most part, the PCM track is visceral and helps launch the momentum the sound designers obviously hoped to impart.
That being said, 'Tekkon Kinkreet' isn't an explosive actioner, and as such it doesn't have the kind of jaw-dropping, show-stopping moments that audiophiles roll out to impress their friends. The track is light and airy (arguably the only element of the film that retains a childlike innocence), but it never wowed me like the visuals. Still, the care that went into this PCM track is obvious -- it's a definite upgrade from the Dolby Digital tracks included on the Blu-ray edition and the lower-bitrate Dolby mix on the standard DVD.
For me, the only disappointing aspect of this release is its relatively short list of extras. All of the supplemental material from the DVD has been included, but the video features are presented in 480i/p only, and there are no high-def exclusives.
First up is a surprisingly bland English-language commentary with director Michael Arias, screenwriter Tony Weintraub, and sound designer Mitch Osias. Arias brings the most interesting topics to the table when he discusses the differences between Western/Eastern cultures, his vision for the film, and his desire to convey his own experiences in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the track tends to veer off course when its participants become engrossed in story eccentricities and technical details. To be sure, there’s plenty of material here for fans to enjoy, but I found I had to listen to this track in three chunks because I had a hard time staying focused.
Next up is a worthwhile documentary called "The Making of Tekkon Kinkreet - Director Michael Arias' 300-Day Diary" (42 minutes), which covers the production of the anime from beginning to end and goes inside various animation departments to watch Arias deal with his team. I really enjoyed this laid-back doc and awished it went on a bit longer. It's not at all flashy, but it reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the film, the story, the original manga, and the aesthetic choices made for the adaptation.
Closing things out is "A Conversation with Director Michael Arias and British Music Duo Plaid" (10 minutes), which sees the group discuss the soundtrack, melody choices, and the film's musical intent. Honestly, I was bored to tears on this one -- it comes across as merely filler and it didn't make me appreciate the film's score any more than I already did.
Although it’s not for all audiences, I found 'Tekkon Kinkreet' to be a stunning animated film that wraps philosophy inside a modern fairy tale to produce a wholly unique experience. As a Blu-ray release, this one’s another winner from Sony, boasting a beautiful transfer and an uncompressed PCM mix that work hand-in-hand to enhance the film. Anime fans shouldn't hesitate to give this one a look.