Most movie viewers have a tendency to dismiss animation; often with the excuse that animated films often lack the serious or the authoritative tone that a live action production might offer.
However, what a number of us fail to realize is that animation is a medium, rather than a genre. It is an artist’s (or a team of artists’) deliberate, artistic decision to portray and deliver a narrative and message through the movement of carefully crafted images. The quality or profundity of a production’s message is not dependent on the film’s medium—that would be analogous to claiming that a piece of photograph is less convincing than a painting merely because of its medium. The rather upsetting irony here is that while many people prefer paintings and hand-drawn works of art to photography, this preference is entirely reversed when it comes to cinematography. Most prefer live-action films to animations, when the former is a form of photography, and the latter mirrors the art of painting and drawing.
This common attitude towards animation seems to be because the medium is largely perceived as either: children’s entertainment, or merely fun visuals to pass one’s time without much emotional or intellectual investment. My own familiarity of animators and animated films is shallow apart from the Pixar classics we’ve all grown up watching. However, I can easily name several animations (outside of Pixar) that have equaled, if not surpassed, the complexity and intelligence of any other form of art. On that list is a film that was shown at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival, Tekkonkinkreet. Adapted from a manga series by the prominent Japanese artist Taiyō Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet is an R-rated production by Destination Films and Studio 4°C, that was released in theaters in 2007.
Tekkonkinkreet is a furiously heartbreaking and healingly beautiful film that follows the lives of two very young orphaned brothers, Kuro (Black), and Shiro (White). As their names suggest, their bond is like that of yin and yang, and in fact, we see a lot of this physical symbol visually embedded in the film. Black occupies the dark, forceful side of the sphere, while White occupies the other half that is innocent and pure. Their extremities keep each other in balance.
White is a twelve year old with the imagination and childish joy more ascribable to a five year old than a pre-teen: he sucks his thumb, plants apple trees, and daydreams a bit too frequently and intensely. Black is the physically and tactically stronger half whose only motive is in protecting White. However, as the film progresses, it’s easy to question whether if it’s not White who is taking care of Black, by keeping him in balance, and preventing him from destroying others and himself. The answer to the question becomes more apparent when their separation causes Black to enter a dangerous, internal abyss of pure violence. It is only with the presence of White that he is able to keep his destructive nature dormant. Despite the fact that Black represents the black side and White represents the white side of yin and yang, similarly to the symbol, the characters suggest “the good in the bad,” and “the bad in the good.” In one scene, White lights a man on fire and murmurs in the most menacing tone: “Let it all burn.” The audience’s surprise at White’s uncharacteristic behavior is mirrored in Black’s face. This kind of rare paradox in their personalities makes them the empathetic and relatable characters that they are.
What is also noticeable about White’s character is that although a boy, his gender identity is conflicting. He is feminine from his physique to his very movements. His voice is even played by an actress—Yū Aoi, whose incredible voice acting in this film should be an article in itself—the only female in the entire cast. The film is deprived of women; with the exception of those who are represented as prostitutes, a profession that can be argued as for the mere service of men. “Tekkonkinkreet” portrays a world that is entirely run by men and it is one that is infiltrated by corporatism, violence, and prostitution. White, with all her feminine qualities, is the sole representation of hope. And it is with this feminine hope that the movie concludes.