Matsumoto, Taiyo (2007), Tekkonkinkreet, Viz Media
[translated into English by Lillian Olsen]
Taiyo Matsumoto’s graphic novel Tekkonkinkreet, originally published in 1994 as 鉄コン筋クリート in three volumes (after having been published in small increments from 1993 to 1994), is a deeply impressive, powerful hunk of a comic book, the translated version of which (translated by Lillian Olsen) deservedly won the prestigious Eisner award. It’s a 614 page story about two brothers and a modern Japanese city in the process of changing, a book that is as moving as it’s ingeniously constructed and brilliantly drawn. Tekkonkinkreet describes a world that is about to dissolve, about to disappear beneath the inevitable onslaught of change, and we feel this loss like the tragedy that it is, because within the pages of this book, the world is completely, fully, palpably realized. You enter Matsumoto’s world on his own terms and while you’re always conscious of this being the case, you are always sorry to leave. This book contains multitudes; depending on your sensibilities it could make you laugh, it could make you cry, in short, Tekkonkinkreet is a book that could break your heart if you let it. At the same time, there is no actual sentimentality in this book because it is so tightly wound, and so efficiently narrated and illustrated. It is without a doubt the best graphic novel I’ve read in at least two years, if only for the fact that it contains several different kinds of books within one cover, all of which are completely successful (although some writers may have done a better job in individual registers). In case this feels repetitive, it’s certainly worth pointing out how completely this book manages to master very different registers and genres without ever showing us the seams between the transitions. It contains low humor and witty, sophisticated jokes. Its plot is captivating whether we look at it from a sociocultural, spiritual or plain entertaining angle. And, finally, its art can be painstakingly, brutally exact and vividly vague at the same time. Taiyo Matsumoto is one of the best artists of his genre, and this extraordinary book provides ample proof of that.
One cannot, however, unreservedly recommend this book to all kinds of readers, mostly because it’s pretty violent. My copy even bears a Parental Advisory Explicit Content sticker, so as not to run the danger of seducing parents into unwittingly buying this book with its color- and cheerful cover for their innocent kids. I am not convinced that this is necessary. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably true that especially the first half of Tekkonkinkreet contains quite a bit of graphic violence as a child uses an iron rod to break skulls, knees and sundry wayward bones in the bodies of various gangsters. Infrequently, people are shot, as well. As far as contemporary comics go, it’s not particularly horrendous and if not for the neat sticker on the front I might not have mentioned it at all, but there you go. Perhaps this is not for kids, but adults, unless they are unreasonably squeamish, have nothing to worry about, especially since the shootings, beatings and other displays of violence never feel gratuitous. Violence, generally speaking, is important to the overall build of the novel because its most central obsession is with bodies, and the way that they connect to the world without, and to other bodies. In every panel of his book, Matsumoto ties the bodies of his characters into a stiff corset of signs and signification, and the whole book keeps providing examples of how its characters and their bodies are all connected to the world and other people’s bodies through language and other means of signification. Its focus on our bodies and their capricious behavior (and misbehavior) is further pronounced, paradoxically, by the unnatural details of some of its characters’ bodily prowess. There are people who can fly (or jump very highly), other people’s injuries heal unnaturally fast or do not incapacitate the injured person in the least, and one person’s visions can impact what happens to people in real life. All this may sound mad, but ultimately, it reinforces the basic parameters of the human body, projecting this story within the limits of these parameters.
While principally, the body takes center stage, another important element of Tekkonkinkreet (and one which will eventually be subsumed by the focus on the bodily aspect of its characters) is the city the book is set in. The sleeve of my copy tells us that the book’s title “is a play on Japanese words meaning ‘a concrete structure with an iron frame’” and the city presented to us is indeed a contemporary city, with elaborate structures constructed from steel reinforced concrete, its forms both highly recognizable for any modern-day city dweller, and pleasurably strange. This strangeness stems from the fact that the city reacts to Matsumoto’s characters frolicking around in it, it bends and strains under their impact, often curving around them, an effect which is partly due to Matsumoto’s drawing technique, which prefers ellipses and circles to straight lines and boxes. Everything seems to be a bit out of bent, more off, even malleable. Sometimes the effect is that of a children’s book, not in the sense of a book for children, but a book by children, conveying a certain levity and looseness. Bodily proportions correspond less to anatomical exactness and more to the action taking place in the panels in question. In fight sequences feet and hands are often somewhat enlarged, both because they are the focus of the action in these panels and because they are ‘in focus’, being closer to the reader. In this way, the book, more than many other well drawn graphic novels I’ve recently read, works a lot like a movie, in each of its panels. This is a distinction that I think is worth making: between artists who have mastered graphic, movie-like action sequences by stacking several panels with small bits of motion, letting the reader follow the movement as they turn the pages. Long-time Millar collaborator Steve McNiven (cf. my review of Old Man Logan (and my other Millar reviews)) is one of those artists, and the effect is tremendous, as it is in the dumbfoundingly fantastic Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware.
Matsumoto’s game is different: in his book, actions are rarely prolonged beyond individual panels. Indeed, it seems to me something that would be fairly unusual for a mangaka to do. Unlike other artists of his genre, however, Matsumoto doesn’t rely overmuch on visual stresses like exclamation marks and the like to show actions and their result within the borders of only one or two panels. Instead, he works with perspective, as I outlined before, with an exaggerated enlargement of objects or parts of the body that are closer to the viewer. In a sense, I think what Matsumoto’s art does is the equivalent of what in a film would be a narrow depth of field. And when Matsumoto does spread an action sequence over several panels, the effect is tremendous, allowing him to zoom in on as many as three actions at the same time without losing momentum or focus. I’m dwelling on this so much because the novel might seem less sophisticated than books drawn, say, by J.G. Jones, Chris Ware or David Mazzucchelli, but Matsumoto’s deceptively simple art hides a complex graphic vision; that vision is the reason why each page, each panel seems to be highly essential, highly labored over and the reason why the whole book appears to be as dense as it does. And it’s not just a narrowed depth of field in action sequences that draws our eyes to hands, feet and iron rods. Its paucity of detail is not unlike that of other manga books (in other words, that aspect is quite typical), but the intense sense of emotion and movement that seems to be quivering in each drawn line of Tekkonkinkreet is something you don’t find that easily. Fear, joy and anger each seem to leave their imprint on the panels in question, especially if one of the two protagonists is somewhere in that panel (they don’t need to be front and center of a specific panel to bend its art around them). This is because when objects that dole out violence are not in focus, the book centers its attention on faces.
Faces, eyes and mouths seem to be several times as large as they need to be because clearly Matsumoto’s interest is in people rather than events. Whether we have mouths that are shouting, laughing, gritting teeth or grinning, the art tends to focus on that. Eyes, as well, but not to the same extent as mouths. The reason for that is the web of signification I mentioned earlier. The city exists because the people in it exist, and things happen because people make them happen. Everything in Tekkonkinkreet is part of a relationship (a very Foucauldian view of things, by the way), power and violence are not accorded presence outside of active human relationships. Nothing just is, except for individual human beings. Everything else is created, shaped and changed by people, for better or worse. This is why it’s perfectly true to say that the whole book is about the invented city Treasure Town and about Black and White, Matsumoto’s protagonists. These are not two different thematic elements: one is contained within the other. Without Black and White gallivanting all over town, the town itself, we feel, would not exist. But it’s not just these two. The story of Tekkonkinkreet is about a new gangster conglomerate moving into Treasure Town to take over, starting a gang war that ends in many gangsters dying or leaving town, and the identity of the ‘old’ Treasure Town is shown to be linked to the people living in it, and their departure (and the arrival of others) signaling changes in the architecture of the city. These new gangsters are opposed by Black and White, two boys who grew up in the seamy back alleys of Treasure Town, and who have earned themselves the respect of the gangster community through a curious mixture of ruthlessness and friendliness. It is in Matsumoto’s depiction of these two boys that the absolute importance of relationships (rather than individual persons or objects) contains some worthwhile ambiguities.
These two boys are antitheses. White is a free spirit, by no means innocent, yet naïve, happy and bursting with creative life. Black on the other hand, with a scar around his left eye, anything but naïve. Of the two, it’s usually him who doles out punishment and violence, it’s him who makes plans, and it’s him who decides to defend Treasure Town against the intruding (and interfering) Yakuza. As the book’s events unfold, Black moves more and more into the foreground, and the events become as much a fight for Black’s soul as they are a fight for the soul of Treasure Town. At the same time, White slips into the background, in several ways. Early on, we are told that Black is “the soul of this city”, and that White is “completely untouched by this sewer of a city”. More and more, as Black fights his adversaries tooth and nail, White steps away from these events, re-creating them with crayons from afar. White is the metaphysical element, independent not just of the city, but also of the maze of relationships that constitute the city and force events and actions on its residents. He does as he pleases, whatever happens to the city and its residents. He would be able to leave altogether, if not for Black. This is the book’s central ambiguity: White, who in almost every way negates the basic givens of the city, whose mouth is the most expressive the most open, who seems to represent the creator of the book itself in his aloof independence, this White is firmly tied to Black who is the city. Thus, on a metaphysical level, through the unbreaking and unbreakable relationship of Black and White, the smaller interdependency on the more gritty level of the city streets and the brutal events unfolding there is reflected and (in a way) confirmed. But this reading is one that is likely to change with further re-readings, since Tekkonkinkreet is a very rich stew of a book, the taste of which is highly addictive and which keeps surprising its readers when they stir around in its steamy depths. There is so much more to this book than I could ever tell, even in a review that had twice the length of this one. Read Tekkonkinkreet, goddamn.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)