Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.
You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.
Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.
One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.
However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].
Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.