Thursday, 10 October 2013

Animated… Tekkonkinkreet (2006) Plaid, Elysian Quartet and O Duo, Barbican Centre

No matter how good the soundtrack, there’s often something’s missing when you listen to a film score before seeing the film. Is it because the artist is holding back in some way or just that the two aspects are so indivisibly part of the experience that you diminish both through experiencing them in isolation?

I’ve got Plaid’s soundtrack to Tekkonkinkreet and long ago dismissed it as lacking the richer textures of their best work… but, after finally seeing the film accompanying the music I understand the latter a lot more. Is the strength of the music inversely proportionate to its link to the film? And, like the main characters in this film, are the two always stronger together - one yin to the other's yang?

Plaid (Andy Turner and Ed Handley) presented a live arrangement of their soundtrack with a soundscape broadened through the use of live strings and percussion. It was not only stronger musically than their studio version but showed the intelligence behind their composition which featured a series of bi-directional connections that varied in strength and tone throughout and which took turns in leading the emotional narrative or following its promptings.

The relationship of Plaid’s music to the film is a complex one and director Michael Arias had them in mind even before he put this version of the film together having been particularly taken with the genuine classic Not For Threes (1997). Surprisingly he says that “…it’s rare to begin work with composers until late in the filmmaking – music is so often an afterthought!” and yet he credits the duo with having a major influence on the story telling from early on, including the characterisation.

Kuro aka Black
The importance of the music is perhaps all the more understandable for a cartoon, especially one this tonally-intense, where the range of expression is more limited than with live actors (in most cases, surely...). An adaptation of the manga written by Taiyō Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet has that distinct strangeness of Studio Ghibli and other Japanese anime, mixing harsh realities with the unusual and the child-like. The characters inhabit a run-down section of a large city and live brutally amongst the violence of various criminal gangs – think Spirited Away meets The Sopranos, complete with ultra-violence and compulsory strip club scenes.

Strange town...
The story focuses on two orphans who have no one to depend on but each other. One is Shiro also known as White (voiced by Yu Aoi) who is a dreamer and not quite of this world yet strangely street smart and with an imaginative intensity. The other is Kuro or Black (the yin to Shiro’s yang… or is it the other way round?) (Kazunari Ninomiya) who is a martial arts expert.

They make a formidable team scaring off rival gangs from neighbouring areas but when the big gangsters – led by local old boy Suzuki (Min Tanaka) - move in, their reign, such as it is, is under threat. Kuro sees off three of Suzuki’s men including Kimura (Yusuke Iseya) who seems to have doubts about his calling…and a back story that builds.

Suzuki and an injured Kimura
But the real threat arrives in the odd-looking form of Snake (Masahiro Motoki) who is far nastier than the rest – in addiction to being a bit green – and who has three super assassins who have the ability to fly as well as maim… They are sent to attack the boys who just about manage to evade two and then destroy one..

Made as a cut Snake...
The battle reaches its critical point when Shiro is badly injured by one of the assassins and Kuro decides that the safest course of action is to harden up and leave his younger chum in protective custody whilst he deals with the protection of Treasure Town…

Separated, he takes on an altogether darker hue and the film starts to move in a more metaphysical manner. Do you have to become your environment or is “Love”, as one of the gangsters says, “all you need”? Kuru knows that by accessing his dark side, he can be stronger and overcome the opposition by force but what will be left of himself at the end? All leads up to a mystical ending which may well signify less than it means to…

These are age-old themes but all played out in a quirky fashion using stylistically extreme cartoons against stunning, other-worldly city-scapes… all art directed brilliantly by Shojiro Nishimi. It’s amazing how quickly you take these seemingly badly drawn boys so quickly to heart and that has as much to do with the music as the animation and voice characterisation.

Plaid’s music was given added muscle by their live musicians and their solo electronica accompanying an animation of Hunt Emerson’s Buster in Mouth City (had to get a silent film reference in somewhere...) was more typical of their sound - genuinely soulful electronica.

But they like to push their boundaries and their trademark elegantly-graduating Mobius lines gained extra texture especially from the Elysian Quartet and it was not just sound that made an impact but their visible musicality and skill. Ed and Andy work hard behind their monitors but you could see the performance craft more with the players who were front and centre with no tightrope and a dodgy pick-up for the Viola…

The Elysian Quartet are Emma Smith and Jennymay Logan on violins, Vincent Sipprell on viola and Laura Moody who was mournfully expressive on the cello.

The varied percussion of O Duo Oliver Cox and Owen Gunnell also played its part as the two ran up and down from tom-toms to glockenspiels and bells.  Showing just how hard it is to physically replicate the sounds from Ed’s laptop on stage.

Tekkonkinkreet is available on DVD from all the old familiar places as is the stand-alone soundtrack CD.  it would be good to have this live version available too but perhaps it is best left as a thing of the moment: a performance with its singular audience connection rather than a souvenir with diminishing returns…

More about the adventures of the Elysian Quartet is on their website whilst the O Duo also have one over here. As for Plaid, they’re techno royalty and if you haven’t seen or heard of them, you can find out what you have been missing on their site.

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