Get inside the head of the first American to make a feature length, anime film

We recently caught up with visual visionary Michael Arias to discuss his directing duties on the hugely popular film, Tekkonkinkreet.

In the film, orphans Black and White rule the mean streets of Treasure Town through violence and terror. These lost boys are direct opposites: Black being a streetwise punk who embodies everything wrong about the city, while White is a innocent dope, out of touch with the world around him. Together, they're unstoppable as they take on petty thugs, religious fanatics and brutal yakuza. But when a corporation called "Kiddy Kastle" tries to tear down and rebuild Treasure Town to fit its own goals, the boys must save the soul of their beloved city, that is if they can save themselves from inner demons. Based on Taiyo Matsumoto's serialized manga "Black and White."

How did you get introduced to the source material for Tekkonkinkreet?

Michael Arias:Tekkon was initially recommended to me by a friend I was staying with in Tokyo. My friend had just lost his wife and I was a bit traumatized from having sold a company that I'd started. I guess I was pretty burned out. And there wasn't much for either of us to do except sit on his balcony and contemplate the view of Tokyo. It was just after the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway nerve gas attacks. Very surreal: helicopters buzzing at all hours, police out in force, masked Aum Shinrikyo members handing out pamphlets on streetcorners. Reading Tekkon at the time, it really felt like this was about me, perched on top of a telephone pole, watching the city being torn down and feeling that there was nothing solid in the world to hold onto. I really identified very strongly to Black and White - their sense of nostalgia for the old town, on the one hand, and their sense of uncertainty for the future. My friend told me Tekkon would make me cry but I didn't really believe him. But, of course, it's an incredibly moving story and it certainly did bring tears to my eyes.

What's it like to be the first American to direct a feature length, anime film?

Michael Arias: Actually I didn't realize that I was the first until after the film was completed. And while working on the film I had so many other things to think about. Being a first-time director was a much bigger factor in my work. I've been here for over 16 years now and, perhaps because I've been here so long and do all my work in Japanese, I never felt any kind of language or cultural barriers. My staff were incredibly supportive and have remained great friends since we finished Tekkon. They never made my being a foreigner an issue at all. It's ironic that more is being made in the US of my being non-Japanese than it ever was in Japan while we were making the movie.

Due to the strong visual nature of Taiyo Matsumoto's original work, were you ever worried about not being able to replicate that on the screen? Was that one of the biggest challenges?

Michael Arias: Taiyo's original is a real visual spectacle, and I don't think it would have been possible replicating that per se. But film gives you access to so many tools - sound, motion, music, color - that the real challenge was finding a combination of those that would give our film's audience a similar experience as someone reading the original. I wanted to remain true to the "spirit" of the original, more than copy the visual style.

Where there themes about Taiyo Matsumoto's manga that really made you want to tell this story? If so, what were they and why?

Michael Arias: Love, brotherhood. Change, as an eternal force in the universe. Pretty standard humanist concerns I suppose. But the original manga is such an interesting combination of elements - sf/action, magical realism, noir - all mixed up and synthesized but in such an organic original way. There's a very strong metaphorical allegorical component to the story but it also works wonderfully a a straight story.

For those who don't know could you explain what Tekkonkinkreet means?

Michael Arias: There is a technical term in Japanese "Tekkin Konkurito" which means "reinforced concrete" and the title of the movie is basically just that word jumbled up. It's kind of a tongue twister that kids might think of. Somehow for me it sounds futuristic but at the same time slightly ramshackle, which is the way I saw the whole world of Tekkonkinkreet. It contains the Chinese characters for 'steel' and "muscle" and those give it a kind of a hard-boiled city feel.

Do you have a favorite feature about the DVD? If so, what is it?

Michael Arias: It's nice to see the "making of" material. This documents a very intense and difficult period of my life and to have it all there - to see the friends and family of artists who helped make Tekkon - is wonderful. The audio commentary is also nice - my two oldest and best friends, (screenwriter) Anthony and (sound designer) Mitch and I watching the movie together and just chatting.

Why do you think manga has come "above ground" so strongly in recent years? Do you think it's the stories? The themes? The characters?

Michael Arias: I'm not so sure manga has come above ground. It's hard for me to evaluate from here, where manga is a staple. And the bookstores I've been in the US with manga corners are stocked with a pretty narrow range of material. But there is certainly an amazing range of stories and characters to choose from. It's a mature art form with variations aimed at every conceivable audience. There's high art, pop, pulp, porno, manga for young readers, working class manga, etc. I have some theories for why comic book art hasn't evolved to this level outside of Japan, but the breadth of the Japanese manga oeuvre never ceases to amaze me.

What do you have coming up next?

Michael Arias: I'm prepping a live action feature film that I'm directing in Japan early next year. That's very exciting but totally different from working on an animated film. I'm also wrapping an episode of NHK's Ani-Kuri series of animated shorts. There are some great directors doing episodes - Tekkon's art director and animation supervisor, Shinji Kimura and Shojiro Nishimi among them - so it's a great honor to be part of the project.

Tekkonkinkreet comes to DVD September 25 from Sony Pictures.

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