CANNES Q&A: 'Tatsumi' Director Eric Khoo

Rory Daniel
Eric Khoo and Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The Singaporean director and Cannes veteran brings his first animated feature to the festival.

Cannes veteran Eric Khoo’s first animated feature, Tatsumi, is a tribute to Japanese animator Yoshihiro Tatsumi, borrowing five “really dark and sad” stories from the artist’s award winning autobiography. Set to unspool in Un Certain Regard as the seminal illustrator from Osaka approaches 76 years old, Tatsumi is a birthday gift from Khoo, produced for US$800,000. Interweaving Tatsumi’s stories with snippets about his youth in post-WWII Japan taken from the autobiography, A Drifting Life, the animated film could help introduce a whole new audience to the gekiga (dramatic pictures) style Tatsumi developed in the late 1950s - a style that would shape comics in his homeland, and around the world, for decades to come. As he prepared to accompany his “sensei” to Cannes, Singaporean Khoo talked with The Hollywood Reporter’s Jonathan Landreth.

The Hollywood Reporter: What’s it like to be going back to Cannes?

Eric Khoo: Tatsumi is my first animated film. Initially, there were teething problems and I wasn’t sure what would come of it. We were exploring a new technique. It’s not the conventional Pixar look that’s become familiar. It’s going back to 1950s charming animation. How would we take Tatsumi’s old animation and refresh it? We made the film as a tribute film and I wanted the film to go to Cannes from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure it could happen. So, it was incredible when I got the news. When my Japanese producer told Tatsumi the news, he was so happy and said it was a dream come true. He’d dreamed as a boy in the 1950s of being a filmmaker. In his gegika animation technique, each frame was almost like the storyboard to a film. In three pages he would draw out 13 panels in detail. He was making comics cinematic in the 1950s and for his story to come to life on the big screen 50 years later is a beautiful marriage.

THR: Tell us about working in animation for the first time.

Khoo: I had all the stories I wanted and had to edit parts of his 800-page autobiography into 35 minutes of film time then cut it together with the five stories. What I wanted very much was for the animators to give me bold full color for his life and for each of the five stories to have their own look. Each story would be one color with different tones. The post-war stories have an intentional scratched sepia look. I told our team of 25 very young artists from Bataam working under Phil Mitchell, creative director at Infinite Frameworks, that I wanted the film to look exactly like Tatsumi’s work. I told them to treat his panels as the storyboards for the film. We started with a 2D notion then added planes for depth of field like you’re looking at the film version of what you’d see through an old red plastic Viewmaster.

THR: What has Tatsumi taught you about storytelling?

Khoo: I’m just so envious of him. He’s got so many stories in his head. He’s working on the sequel to his autobiography and though he has no religion he’s fascinated by reincarnation and is working on a new project about a girl who searches the world for the love of her life who dies and she is convinced has come back to life. Picture this, a young Japanese girl wearing a tudung Muslim headscarf, in Turkey, searching for her man. What an image!

THR: What’s it like to make a film in a language you don’t speak?

Khoo: It’s in Japanese, which was tough for me, but I was still very focused on the voices. Which is why I hired famous Japanese stage actor Tatsuya Bessho to be Tatsumi’s voice. He came to Singapore to do his voice and six other characters. With animation, you need a very strong vocal delivery. My two previous films were sound directed by a Japanese guy based in Singapore who helped me put out ads in Japanese magazines. With the exception of Bessho, all the other voices are amateurs from Singapore’s population of 20,000 Japanese. A friend in the Japanese embassy here helped find others and we had to find people from Osaka, who speak a different dialect. And we then had to have Tatsumi teach the voice actors to speak the Osaka dialect from the 1950s because it’s changed. I wanted every detail to be accurate. I know how the Japanese are - if there’s any error or fault, they’d say, “Hey it’s not right.”

THR: Tell us about your son Christopher’s composition for the film.

Khoo: While making My Magic, my last feature, the third of my four sons kept asking me about the story. I was scribbling notes about music and I heard my son, who was then 10, playing something on his piano. I asked him who’s it was - he usually plays Cold Play, or whatever - and he said, “It’s mine.” I said, “Wow, can I use it for my film?” He smiled. He was on the red carpet with me and was called “The youngest composer in Cannes.” Later he revealed he’d written it for the film but didn’t want to say, “Hey, Dad, I wrote this for your movie,” just in case he got rejected. Being clever, he just played it when I was in the room. So, this time, I asked him for help for Tatsumi and he went to work over two weeks and came up with three pieces we call The Main Theme, Fireflies and Gegika.

THR: Could you have made this film without cheap Indonesian animators?

Khoo: It would have been really difficult. Before I started work on Tatsumi I asked around but a lot of studios said it would take two to three years. Tatsumi, at 75, was rushing me, saying, “Can you hurry up, you know I’m getting old, right?” Mike Wiluan from Infinite Frameworks does a lot of syndicated TV shows, so this was a new area for them, but they enjoyed Tatsumi’s stories. We were able to really bond and it became a labor of love for everyone even though some of the themes are dark. Some of the early-20s Indonesian animators initially reacted to the material like it was pornography, but then they sensed the stories had some real depth.

THR: How did you choose the stories?

Khoo: Initially I wanted eight and I chose ones that he, Tatsumi, liked best, too. The ones that are the most powerful. We had to cut three for time’s sake. I couldn’t exceed 100 minutes, which is already long for an animated film.

THR: What can you tell us about your next project?

Khoo: I’ll give the animated film thing a rest. I’m going back to a story about a famous stripper in 1950s Singapore and Malaysia called Rose Chan. She was on the walls of a lot of young men next to posters of Marilyn Monroe. She did her act with a python. I was working on this before, but realized I had to put Rose on hold for Tatsumi. Now I can revisit Rose. I’m reworking the script and have found somebody who’ll be great playing Rose. I hope to start shooting in December.

Eric Khoo Vital Stats
Film in Cannes: Tatsumi, Un Certain Regard
Date of birth: March 27, 1965
Nationality: Singaporean
Selected Features Filmography: My Magic (2008), Be with Me (2005), 12 Storeys (1997), Mee Pok Man (1995).
Notable Awards: My Magic (2008): Grand Prix, Fribourg International Film Festival; nominated, Cannes Palme d’Or. Be With Me (2005): Best screenplay, Ghent International Film Festival; FIPRESCI Prize, Stockholm International Film Festival; Asian Film Award - Special Mention, Tokyo International Film Festival; Best director, Torino International Festival of Young Cinema; Special Mention, Mar del Plata Film Festival. 12 Storeys (1997): Best Feature Film, Hawaii International Film Festival