Tatsumi is based on Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life, and was something of a passion project for its director, Eric Khoo. A long-time fan of Tatsumi’s work, after reading A Drifting Life, Khoo was inspired to create a tribute to the artist’s life, celebrating his work and bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.
The film deftly condenses the key moments and sentiments from the original 840 page graphic novel and includes five of Tatsumi’s own fictional short stories. Tatsumi harboured a passion for comics from an early age, working furiously on creating his own, submitting them to manga competitions against a background of post-war struggle and the trials of family life. With a prodigious output Tatsumi’s work began to be recognised, and he became able to support his family, move to the city to further his career, and work with likeminded artists. In this new environment Tatsumi spearheaded the birth of ‘gekiga,’ realist, adult themed manga.
The film loyally retains Tatsumi’s style, virtually animating the original panels in a simple and modest manner, adding only a cinematic scope to the hand drawn, direct, cartoon-realist drawings. The autobiographical element of the film is rendered in full colour, while the five of Tatsumi’s early stories (fitted into the film at relative chronological points), are presented in muted tones, serving to clearly demarcate these fictional interludes, while simultaneously intensifying their dramatic nature. A voiceover narrative fills in the details, while other dialogue is sparse or left to subtitles, successfully occupying a space somewhere between the original static panels and their captions and the demands of movement and scale of cinema.
Tatsumi’s is an interesting and touching life made arresting by the open and frank style of recollection, but it is not a particularly dramatic one. Khoo’s decision to interpose a selection of Tatsumi’s fictional short works between the biographical sequences adds real depth and enriches the film. The stories illustrate an otherwise hidden emotional and sociological level; specifically the mindset and life of their author and the historical context of post-war Japan and its rebirth. These short self-contained parables of isolated, anguished lives in crowded but lonely cities resonate as much with today’s urban alienation as they did when originally created. ‘Beloved Monkey,’ the story of a lonely factory worker, who after an accident can no longer work and so must give up his pet monkey is a perfect example of Tatsumi’s humanist tales, and one with a particularly tragic and harrowing turn of events. Such dark, realist and at times disturbing subject matter clearly highlight the break in style and subject Tatsumi makes from the traditional, child-aimed manga, marking explicitly Tatsumi’s most important contribution as an artist and story teller.
To take Khoo’s aims as stated above as a framework of critical review for Tatsumi, the film leaves any audience member who, like myself, had previously known nothing of Yoshihiro Tatsumi wanting to discover more (Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly have published a three volume ‘Best of’ anthology of Tatsumi’s short stories, as well as his first full length work, Black Blizzard ). In juxtaposing the artist’s biography with a selection of his fictional works Khoo has created a broad overview of a life and the art it has produced. For those more familiar with Tatsumi, while the film might not offer anything insightful, it will offer a new perspective within a carefully and beautifully crafted, respectful and thoroughly engaging tribute.
Tatsumi is in cinemas from Fri 13 Jan, released by Soda Pictures.