Black & White
Just as we were getting used to stacks of little books written right-to-left, just as manga has spread to the point where it is henceforth part of the comics reader’s landscape — in this universe of sleek lines and flawless patterns, with its characteristic big eyes and little panties — Black and White hits us like a UFO.
The trembling line, devoid of the clinical precision of typical Japanese productions, strikes us from the cover page. But what is perhaps most surprising about Matsumoto is that, far from adopting the extremely codified language of manga, he chooses a narration very close to our European conventions, but with a sensibility that is firmly Japanese. No free-form pages here, none of the ubiquitous motion-lines in a riot of action ; Matsumoto is more concerned with creating an ambiance, using eloquent silences and glances heavy with meaning. And while you may be rebuffed by the drawing style at first, you quickly appreciate its subtlety and richness.
In a country where nearly 80 % of the population lives in the shadows of buildings, it is not surprising that the city plays a principal role in manga. Here Black and White distinguishes itself since, for once, the city is not doomed to perish in a great apocalyptic and expiatory explosion. And this is not another futuristic tinsel city — the ideal that seems to be the dream of a Japan anxious to conceal the by-products of its industrial success, sweeping them into deserted corners in train stations or under highway ramps.
Matsumoto anchors himself unequivocally in reality. The logos of mega-stores, neon signs that fill the night, the architecture of particular neighborhoods : these are all the signs of the Japanese urban landscape of today, of a Tokyo that he describes without naming it explicitly. Rather than “Neo-Tokyo” or “Tokyo-3” — names that connote a desire for a clean slate, returning to square one to create an acceptable utopia — Matsumoto chooses a highly symbolic name : Takara, “Treasure.”
What you will find in the course of these pages is a living, teeming, organic city — a city that must be protected, lest it vanish and be replaced by the soulless buildings of modern complexes. A city where behind the scenes you find dark alleys, shabby neighborhoods and wretched inhabitants, their small lives without a ray of light. A city of today.
The defenders of this human city in the shadows of concrete and glass facades : White and Black, two presumed brothers, two small hoodlums known as “the Cats.” Two brothers, but also two sides of a single divided being : heart and head, weakness and strength, dreamer and cynic … lunatic and sage, or possibly vice versa — the border becomes blurred, the roles indefinite.
Certainly, this reading of Black and White in terms of Taoist symbolism — the union of Yin and Yang, the balance between opposed principles — is the most natural one, this being manga. Nevertheless, the Western myth of Peter Pan is not far away either. Thus, Black flies above the city, while White is a strange child-animal who collects wristwatches so as to check and manage the passing of time. But what recalls the heroes of James Barrie most of all is the opposition of children to adults — children who refuse to grow up, versus greedy and unscrupulous adults, Takara being a treasure that attracts avarice.
To protect the city’s soul, the defenders resort to violence. This violence bursts out and is extinguished in a moment, but not before wrecking everything. Far from being glorified as the motive force of history, it remains always brutal, hard to endure … real, like the city. No explosions or special effects, but crude street fighting, blows which hurt, breaking jaws, bloodying noses, knocking out teeth. No adversaries who get up smiling without a scratch.
Don’t look either for a triumphant conqueror, ready to cross swords with the bad guy in the next episode. The rare confrontations that are sprinkled throughout this story leave marks, wounds which are not always visible. Placing his hand on Black’s chest, the Grandfather is troubled : “Your heart has surely been dealt a terrible blow. Now it is as hard as stone.”
”The most important thing is balance. This balance must never be broken.”
This wisdom comes from the mouths of the old ones. While others, younger or less thoughtful, hope to extract a profit from the city, these few know that the Tao is the only source of prosperity. White, Black ; the shining city and the swarming city ; the gangs and the gangsters … each has its place in the order of things.
Transcended by the symbolic stakes of this conflict, personalities are wiped away, becoming no more than ideas, mythical figures in an urban animism. Identifying themselves with the emblems that they carry on their clothes or their face, they become incarnations of primordial forces, clashing under the eyes of ordinary citizens.
But the balance is violated when White and Black, the guardians of Takara’s soul, find themselves separated. Slowly, each sinks into madness — a murderous madness for Black, who must become an animal in order to defeat animals. He loses his purity, finding himself struggling with a demon even darker than himself : Itachi, or the dark face of Black ; Itachi, or the city of dark alleys — this city which hypocrites refuse to recognize for itself, chasing it with neon and lights –this hidden city whose inhabitants are called pain, anger, hate, cruelty. “You find me ugly ?” asks Itachi. “But I speak the language of truth.”
White, having become a little boy nearly like others, realizes the danger that threatens his alter-ego, his other self. Furiously blackening a page, repeating “black … black … black” as an incantation, he tries to call his brother back from the well of despair where Itachi has imprisoned him. And in a reversal of their roles of protector and protected, it is he who will save Black from the claws of the Minotaur, in his way, by drawing him into his dreams.
The two halves find each other again ; serenity returns to the city. The balance is restored, even if the last pages leave a hovering doubt : Black henceforth carries the mark of Itachi, and it seems that he will never be as he was. The wheel turns, the balance changes but endures.
Published in France in 1996 by Tonkam, Black and White has until now stayed unjustly in the shadows — labeled as manga and therefore beneath consideration for some, while offending the aesthetic assumptions of others who are too accustomed to a smooth and stereotyped look. Yet this true novel (600 pages long) is certainly one of the richest and most interesting works translated in recent years, and illustrates an unfamiliar aspect of Japanese sensibilities.
And if Black and White is now one of the most controversial manga works in Japan, it is due not to excesses of violence or sex, but to an excess of realism. Painting a portrait of the Japanese metropolis that is inevitably not to everyone’s taste, it nevertheless is a superb humanist ode to the city, be it as it is, even in its wretchedness … since there is always something there to nourish dreams.
Japan, all in all a small island (or archipelago), has one of the most important megapolitan conurbations on the planet.
Concrete has necessarily a bitter taste, and it walls off the land of imagination.
The island of imagination has moved on, pushed by the city of concrete. Hard to trace the exact route (thanks in part to pollution) — just that it keeps pushing on. So, does the sea still surround it ?
Black and White are two (lost) boys, two orphan brothers with only a (step- ?) grandfather who is seen now and then. Both of them can leap or fly like birds, an extraordinary talent which gives them the name of “cats” and makes them the soul of the city Takara (meaning treasure — and on an island ? Barrie, or Stevenson ?).
They live in the street, looting to survive, with a broken-down car for shelter. Black flies/leaps the highest, catching the omnipresent wind, but of the two he is the one with his feet on the ground. He dresses, washes, and feeds White his schizoid brother — who is elsewhere in his head, who cries poetry to the winds, so as not to be stifled by lucidity (so as not to grow up — like the city). Black hates adults, repels them with blows, using his body while White uses his head. Between the two of them, they are Peter Pan. They are the legitimate masters of this imaginary city.
Everything starts to go wrong when certain yakuza gangsters (pirates) want to channel[?] the youthful city, when an amusement park intrudes, and when someone else wants to do away with a strip club (a place where all is unveiled) which made “men … out of the boys of this city.”
Regression of adults to childhood : intolerable ! More intolerable than the opposite ! Black, the eternal childhood of the city, won’t accept it ; White, the other eternal childhood of the city, just babbles (a vain scramble for understanding).
The fight begins ; they meet three (animal) adults who also can fly/leap : Butterfly, Tiger and Dragon. The fight with Dragon injures White, forces him to kill and therefore to grow up. For Black, White having grown up is lost, weighing him down in his flight ; he sends him back to the (civilized) world of adults as Peter Pan would have done.
Black confronts Tiger and Butterfly. He wins, but is alone, and loses himself with the demon Itachi, the Minotaur, the shadow of his shadow, darker than Black. Darkness against light, the ancient struggle since the dawn of time, continuing in the imaginary country of today.
As Black and White sink into crisis and madness, their faces have an intensity rarely achieved in the world of the 9th art.
Matsumoto is an exceptional talent. His drawing shows a European influence : Moebius by way of Otomo (and, to elaborate : he must have run into Prado along the way). He has the clearness of line of these artists, combined with a (distantly) underground aesthetic. But manga has not really been denied ; it’s there in certain narrative codes, in framing, themes, layout, gags, allusions, freeze-frames, etc. White, for example, is cared for by Black Jack (the hero of Tezuka), the famous surgeon with a face made up of black and white separated by a scar.
Matsumoto has an elaborate concern for detail. The costumes and hairdos of Black and White are extremely varied and well conceived, but they don’t interfere with the reading ; the proof of the artist’s great skill is that you always recognize the characters. Clothes change like the seasons, following the characters and adding to their already great psychological and symbolic depth.
Matsumoto is intelligent and has great cultural grounding. He cultivates rightness on all levels. When Black or White fly/leap, the background is not reduced to a few jagged parallel lines ; the characters are not in a flying position either (as in, e.g., a superhero comic). No speed-lines either (or very few). The characters are suspended. Matsumoto works like a photographer : with his lines, he observes, lies in wait for, and captures these suspended moments, these instants that tell all. He does not seek narrative images that simply refer to other images ; he shows moments connecting with each other.
Faces are therefore of an unbelievable exactness and expressiveness. We are far from the incessant repetition of archetypal characters ; Matsumoto is well beyond all that, beyond masks and caricatures. He stylizes reality, obviously, but with exactness, without excess, without relying on reified, systematized codes.
The care for detail is also found in the description of the city. It’s all around, teeming ! He describes the city, makes it move from within, shows its circulation. The city is the other main character of this story. But this is not one of the pseudo-realistic neighborhoods of other Tonkam publications ; there are no dilapidated apartment blocks, no disfiguring supermarkets. Neither is it the hyper-historic district so dear to urban scholars. We are in a sprawling Japanese city, anonymous despite its name, which has little to do with downtown Paris.
The city is important because it is the place of evolution. Its principal characteristic is that it’s made of concrete. But bitterness comes more from the changes that it undergoes and that it forces on us. These can’t be reduced to a simple cause. The problem has more to do with substance (materials) than with form (architecture).
Matsumoto’s city is supple ; it bends under the wind like reeds or treetops. Around the edges of images, the perspective is often exaggerated — a fish-eye effect, and fishes fly in the dreams of Black and White, of course, as the sea is never far away … we are on an island, after all.
And eventually, having found the sea, Black and White find that they have grown up after all, like the apple seed they planted in the urban soil.
“Know yourself” — knowledge is not a sin in this case. Black and White take the lesson : accept nature, accept your nature. The fruit of the tree will be eaten and the heights of perception will be attained, for them as for us.
Black and White is rather acrid — there’s a little extra something from Asia added to the taste — and that gives it its unique savor.
P.S. The second piece above is my first attempt at translating a “Jessie Bi special.” The famous founder of du9 exists in a narrative mode all his own (the 10th art ?) and the only real solution is for everyone to learn French so as to follow his stream of consciousness. In the meantime, I’ve tried to be somewhat faithful to some of his interesting notions, with a few concessions where English grammar could not stretch quite that far.
- Translator’s notes :
The Japanese title, Tekkonkinkurito, is a play on words between “reinforced concrete” and “muscle” (or so XaV tells me). It was published in French as Amer Béton, meaning “bitter concrete,” also a pun on “reinforced concrete” (béton armé). So, what clever title did they choose for the English translation ? Black and White.
It’s being serialized in Pulp (Viz Communications) ; they started about a year ago, and if they continue at the current rate (15 pages a month !) it will take three more years. Judging from several letters to the editor and the few reviews I’ve seen, the response has been pretty much as XaV described. People really don’t know what to make of it — least of all the editors, who summarized it like this (quote from the contents page) : “Mean kids practice random violence and senseless acts of ugliness on the mean streets.” (This could be an ingenious bit of benevolent false advertising, but I doubt it.)
It’s interesting to see the readers who do like it trying to describe the art, without having a European point of reference ; they usually settle for “unusual” or “underground-looking.” The latter phrase made me wonder if there really are any American artists who resemble Matsumoto. Well, yes : the very early Crumb , and even more so the late Crumbish gag cartoonist B. Kliban ( !) (who, ironically, is best known for his silly little cats). Strange associations, and Jessie’s list (Moebius etc.) makes more sense, but anyway…
Now, I can’t read Japanese, so I can’t really be sure that the translation is as bad as it seems, but … well, yes I can : the translation is pretty bad. Think of Heavy Metal where the dialogue in the European stories tends to read like a badly dubbed movie. Pulp seems to be the Heavy Metal of manga at the moment, and presents the same challenge to the reader : Be grateful that we can read this stuff at all in America, and try to translate backwards in your mind to recreate what really is a lovely and well-crafted story.