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Black & White. By Taiyo Matsumoto. Translated by Lillian Olsen. English Adaptation by Annette Roman. San Francisco, CA: Viz Communications, 1998-2000. 3v. (Pulp Graphic Novel). $15.95/v. ISBN 1-56931-322-9 (v.1); 1-56931-432-2 (v.2); 1-56931-490-X (v.3).


Crime and mystery

Adults, teens; language, violence, mild nudity

Black and White (also known as the Stray Cats or the Cat Brothers) are two young orphans who live on and rule the streets of Treasure Town. Black is streetwise, intelligent, and hardened; White is naive, stupid, and full of the joy of life (although he has a mean kick). Black is devoted to White and takes care of him. A lot of adults also feel protective of White; for example, a cook at a diner reads White a story while the boys eat. Their chief joy in life is beating up people, usually gang members or other disreputable types. They are not murderers, however. Many of the inhabitants of Treasure Town have heard of the pair, though they're mostly mythical; for one thing, they can fly. The cops are dismayed by but sort of resigned to their presence.

The first book is mostly a series of vignettes that illustrate Black and White's existence, but the main storyline is that the Rat, a Yakuza bigwig, is returning to Treasure Town. One of his first orders is to "spread some rat poison around for the brats." [The story hints that the Rat had something to do with Black's being an orphan, but their relationship is never quite stated.] When the Yakuza start threatening Chocolate, the leader of a teenage gang and the friend of the Cats, Black comes to the rescue and beats up Kimura, the Rat's henchman, and several other Yakuza. This act earns him even more enmity, if possible, in the second book, where the Rat teams up with a peculiar cult-like crime syndicate whose tactics include building Kiddie Kastles (big amusement centers) in cities, which somehow changes the nature of those cities. A big shot in this syndicate, the Serpent, sends three assassins after the Cats to chase them out of the city. The Cats manage to prevail, with Black in full berserker mode doing some serious damage to the Assassins, but Black knows they're in deadly danger.

With Kimura reluctantly joining the Serpent's camp, the Serpent orders that the Cats be exterminated. The remaining two assassins ambush and stab White; the cops come, and the assassins run (actually fly) away, and White eludes the concerned cops to drag himself back to the abandoned car where he and Black live. Black gets him to a hospital, where he's touch and go for several days. Black just sits next to the bed while various adults speculate on what happened and how scary Black is getting. White recovers, but Black feels that he can no longer protect his friend, and so he lets the cops take White into protective custody despite White's strenuous objections.

In book 3, Black is suffering from White's absence; he's getting reckless, crazy, and even more bloodthirsty than before, and he doesn't take care of himself like he used to. He's still fighting off the assassins, but even as he wins skirmishes he is clearly losing ground. White somehow feels Black's mental deterioration. Elsewhere, to prove his loyalty to the Serpent, Kimura agrees to kill the Rat, whose standing in the city has diminished considerably. But the Rat, far from fighting for his life, gladly agrees to let Kimura kill him because he has no place in the changed city any longer. But Kimura's girlfriend is pregnant, and Kimura wants to leave his life of crime. However, the Serpent isn't so willing to have this happen, and guns down Kimura as he tries to drive away.

Using weapons for the first time, the assassins get the drop on Black. However, a mysterious "minotaur" figure (a boy with a bull's skull over his head) appears and defeats the pair handily. He then takes Black in hand, urging the boy to give in to his dark side completely. A long distance away, White feels Black's mental struggle and does what he can to help his friend.

This is a fascinating work that's considerably deeper than most manga. With its mingled Japanese and European sensibilities (resulting in an action/intellectual focus with a little American superhero thrown into the mix as well), it has a unique sound and feel that I find quite refreshing. The vignettes about Black and White's life build up slowly and carefully, so that when their relationship is threatened you know what's at stake. I'm not a big fan of episodic stories as a rule, but this one fit together well, and the characters were so interesting that I always cared about what they did.

There is a lot to like about the title. The relationship between Black and White is enjoyably complex and mystical. I love the conceit of flying kids; one of the strongest senses I get from the book is that of the utter freedom of flying, and the power that it gives the Cats. The symbology throughout the book is extremely interesting: the Cats, the Rat, the Serpent, Black and White/yin and yang, the wannabes Dawn and Dusk/Chocolate and Vanilla (who are all more complete people than Black and White but not "dark" and "light" enough to capture the soul of the city), the Minotaur guiding Black through the maze of his mind. The violence, while plentiful, is rarely fatal, more a warning from Black (or the city?) than anything else.

However, as literature, the title is flawed. The main problem is that although the characters continually talk about how the city is changing, we don't get to see these changes. It's the old show-don't-tell issue. We hear about an increase in road rage or having to think twice before spitting on the sidewalk, but these comments carry little emotional force for the reader. Why couldn't these things have been depicted visually? Nor are we ever given a sense of the city-before and the city-after for context. From the reader's perspective, the only visible change (besides the introduction of the Serpent and his assassins) is the Kiddie Kastle. There are no ripples of change; there are no subtle changes depicted. So, with this major weakness being a critical part of the plot, the story suffers considerably.

Of less concern but also noticeable is the question of why the Yakuza take the Cats so seriously in the beginning. The Cats do not seem to be a threat to their operations until after Black rescues Chocolate. Why is the Rat so fixated on them? What did they do to him, and he to them? The vague hints in the story aren't enough to make me suspend my disbelief that these things are happening. It's fine to leave some mystical things unexplained, such as why the kids and the assassins can fly, but leaving the more realistic elements up in the air hurts the credibility of the plot. There may be future books that deal with this issue, but you'd think we'd get at least something in the first three. Overall, Matsumoto appears to have focused too much on symbology and the day-to-day existence of Black and White, and not enough on the bigger plot picture. Indeed, I almost wished there hadn't been a plot, just the vignettes about the two kids.

One other thing I'd like to complain about is the third book's use of the hoary old idea of a character's evil side coming out to tempt him into embracing the dark side. Damn, we've seen that a lot. Heck, I've been playing Baldur's Gate II, and this boring idea has been inserted into that as well. Aviva to writers: IT'S BEEN DONE. Repeatedly. Do something else!

The art... I've been struggling for words to describe it. It's simpler and more angular than a lot of manga and uses few typical manga conventions. Even the characters look more Asian than is common in manga. Thankfully, the magic of the Internet and my cheap scanner lets me provide you with a few examples:

The caption kinda says it all, as Black surveys his city (and the bad guys yell at each other)

Black goes bonkers. Love that toothy grin!

Copyright 1998-2000, Taiyo Matsumoto

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed this series quite a bit, despite its flaws. It's the kind of work that rewards rereading as you discover more and more layers of meaning; it's thought-provoking (albeit occasionally in the "I don't understand that" way) and, in a strange way, rather beautiful. Recommended for adults and teens; probably too intense for kids.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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