Tekkonkinkreet: Taiyo Matsumoto on the Sublime
Longinus defines the sublime as the transporting effect of elevated language on an audience. Sublimity may be created from great thoughts, noble feelings, diction, lofty expression, or arrangement; regardless of the source, Longinus asserts that the sublime evokes a unanimous response or reaction from an audience. Common genres of work that elicit such responses are historic speeches, poems, novels, and early nineteenth century paintings. Should the union of image and text be done correctly, the comics medium also has the ability to produce intense sublimity. Comics allows authors and artists to experiment with the sublime in less traditional ways, though they transport the audience just the same. Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet, a Japanese manga, is sublime as a piece of literary fiction and as a work of art.
In general, comics is a fitting medium for the sublime. In Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, he discusses the concept of masking. When the background is drawn realistically but iconic (or cartoon) characters are placed in the environment, the reader is able to mask himself. McCloud claims masking allows a reader to “safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (43). The concept of masking parallels Longinus’ idea that sublimity allows the reader to go outside himself.
Matsumoto studied art in France and learned many techniques from French artists; the artwork in Tekkonkinkreet is heavily influenced by French art. Specifically, Matsumoto’s use of masking is borrowed from the style of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin. This imitation of style is sublime in itself. Matsumoto also emulates the styles of great authors such as Aristotle and Longinus. He borrows ideas from Aristotle’s theory of tragedy. One of the main characters from Tekkonkinkreet, Black, can be viewed as a tragic hero. Aristotle’s definition of tragedy includes the tragic hero’s change from good to bad, arousing pity and fear. He articulates that this change is not due to any moral defect or flaw, but rather a mistake. Black’s mistake is leaving his naïve partner White alone, returning to find him severely injured. They are separated due to the injury (White is brought to a hospital and later taken into police custody) after which Black’s change becomes very obvious. His dress becomes more sinister, and readers become aware of a swift psychological degeneration. Aristotle’s definition says that after the hero’s mistake, there is a revelation or recognition. Towards the end of Tekkonkinkreet, Black and White are reunited and Black is able to understand things as he used to. Catharsis follows; in the last several pages of Tekkonkinkreet, Black and White find themselves in a beautiful paradise filled with bliss and beautiful surroundings. The cathartic ending leaves readers with feelings of joy and pride. Matsumoto’s use of tragedy along with the scenery at the end effectively produce sublimity.
Matsumoto seems also to borrow ideas directly from Longinus’ On the Sublime. Matsumoto introduces the sublime through the use of many techniques, and it is apparent that he has a firm grasp on the concept. He uses literary techniques as well as artistic techniques to produce sublimity, but when they are brought together their effect is much greater. The entire story appeals to ethos. Matsumoto communicates such high-mindedness and grand conceptions through the dialogue and overarching themes of the story that the readers are drawn into the world of the novel. The story is full of strong emotion and passion, which manifests itself in the text as well as the beautifully illustrated panels. The novel also appeals to logos. Matsumoto’s diction and lofty expression produce immense sublimity. He uses the apple as an extended metaphor for truth throughout the entirety of the text, however its meaning is not fully revealed until the end of the novel. Tekkonkinkreet is also sublime in its arrangement. The panel arrangement is often unlike typical American comics, and creates tension and emotion through implied action.
When Black makes his tragic mistake, according to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, Matsumoto makes an incredibly deliberate reference to Longinus’ On the Sublime. He seems to visually quote Longinus when he says, “a well-timed flash of sublimity shatters everything like a bolt of lightening and reveals the full power of the speaker at a single stroke.” In Tekkonkinkreet, a lightning bolt strikes (373), and then Matsumoto juxtaposes an image of White with a sword through his torso—the result of Black’s tragic mistake—with a blooming flower. (374). Matsumoto’s reference to On the Sublime is the single most beautiful sequence in the entire novel, and the sublimity it evokes has great transporting power. At this moment, readers are not only filled with emotional shock, but also left in awe of the striking images. With this sequence, Matsumoto appealed to both ethos and logos; he produced strong and inspired emotions as well as admiration through the use of panel arrangement and design.
Tekkonkinkreet could be picked apart panel by panel and one would find it hard to uncover an instance where the sublime is not present. After several read-throughs, one would still find an increasing amount of wonderful, imaginative symbolism and metaphor. The overarching themes of the novel are complex and Matsumoto’s reference to such great scholars as Aristotle and Longinus only adds further depth. The sublime seeks to enthrall the audience and move them beyond rational thought. Matsumoto titled his masterpiece with this thought in mind. “Tekkonkinkreet” is a play on Japanese words meaning “a concrete structure with an iron frame,” and it suggests the opposing images of concrete cities against the strength of imagination. Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet is a timeless work that is an extreme example of the sublime.