The first feature-length Japanese anime to be directed by a foreigner, the impressive Tekkonkinkreet has cult animation written all over it. It's a streetwise Spirited Away, darker, moodier and more adult-oriented than Miyazaki's masterwork, with an apocalyptic undercurrent that reminds one of the dark fairytales of Philip Pullman and a noirish urban lyricism with hints of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
Sony Pictures Releasing is apparently still mulling over whether to add a Stateside theatrical release to the picture's obvious DVD berth. It would be a shame if Tekkonkinkreet were confined to the small screen: the obsessive detail of the cel animation and the impressionistic watercolour effects of the dream-nightmare sequences are best appreciated on a wide canvas.
But the film will inevitably reach the majority of its audience worldwide via auxiliary channels, with strong word of mouth likely to push it beyond its core anime fanbase.
Director Michael Arias was born in Los Angeles, and worked as a special effects maestro on a couple of James Cameron films before moving to Japan in 1992 as a software designer. He later worked as producer on Animatrix, a package of nine short animes inspired by The Matrix, which stands as the top-selling direct-to-video Japanese anime title in the US.
But although Arias and scriptwriter Anthony Weintraub (who adapted Taio Matsumoto's three-volume manga) are American, this is no watered- down anime for foreign consumption.
If anything, it seems more authentically Japanese to outsiders than recent globally-pitched anime fairytales like Howl's Moving Castle, Tales Of Earthsea or Steamboy. And it has been hailed as such in Japan, where Tekkonkinkreet took a respectable $4.5m box office haul following its end-of-year release.
The setting, a tatty, retro future-city district called Treasure Town, reeks with local colour. Patched and painted, dilapidated beneath its blinking neon signs and gaudy facades, referencing everything from Ganesh statues to Aga Sofia, this is Old Tokyo filtered through a grille of influences that runs from Metropolis to Blade Runner.
Treasure Town is home to Black and White, two super-urchins who are more shaply characterised than their names suggest. White is a snotty ten-year-old who behaves more like he's three; he can't even put his own clothes on. Black, who looks around 12, is White's older friend and surrogate father; melancholy and world-weary, he sometimes gives way to violent rages.
Both can fly through the air and duff up baddies, though their powers are pushed to the limit when Mr Snake, a Joker-like Venusian property developer, decides to clean out the 'hood, which he intends to turn into a huge amusement park.
The battles between the cops, the yakuzas and the street gangs that vie for control in the first part of the film gradually fade into the background, all crushed (and united in nostalgia) by the cynical redevelopment of the city (hinted at in the title, which is a pun on the Japanese word for reinforced concrete).
But this too is pushed aside as the mood becomes more metaphysical, culminating in a remarkable final cosmic struggle - which comes on like an animated version of one of William Blake's visionary watercolours.
The soundtrack, courtesy of British electronic music duo Plaid, creates a sound texture to match the rich cultural mix of the visuals, veering from jazzy Quincy-Jones-style noir themes to urban tom-tom beats.
Asmik Ace Entertainment
Sony Pictures Releasing
Anthony Weintraub, based on the manga by Taio Matsumoto