Eric Khoo's 'Tatsumi' to Unspool at Cannes (Exclusive)

Rory Daniel
Eric Khoo and Yoshihiro Tatsumi

The animated feature film tribute to Japanese animator hero Yoshihiro Tatsumi borrows five "really dark and sad" stories from the artist's autobiography.

BEIJING – Director Eric Khoo is thrilled to give his Japanese animator hero, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a birthday present in France this May in the form of an animated feature film tribute at Cannes to a life’s work in manga.

Tatsumi will unspool in the Un Certain Regard section a month after the seminal illustrator from Osaka’s hand drawn autobiography is published in French and a month before he turns 76 years old.

“Of course Sensei’s going to go to Cannes,” said Khoo, 34, using the Japanese for ‘master’ over the telephone from his native Singapore. “We made the film for him.”

In the 98-minute gift, produced for US$800,000 by Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films with animators at Infinite Frameworks Studio of Bataam, Indonesia, Khoo borrows five “really dark and sad” stories from Tatsumi’s autobiography, A Drifting Life, interweaving them with his subject’s narrative about growing up in post-WWII Japan.

“There’s so much humanity in these stories. What really captivates me is that he’s writing about the human condition.  They’re old tales, but they’re still so fresh,” said Khoo, who brought Tatsumi to Singapore to record his thoughts, his memories and feelings.

“He even drew frames for us that didn’t appear in his book,” said Khoo, a book which last year at ComiCon in San Diego won the Eisner Award -- considered the Oscar of the animation world -- for Best Reality-Based Work.

Khoo first convinced Tatsumi he could tackle his life tribute after a three hour meeting in 2008 held entirely through an interpreter and with help from Masato Yamamoto, a producer at Fuji Films.

“Him being an artist, he could see what I was on to,” Khoo said. “I’ve never done an animated film before, but with this project there was no way I was going to do a live action. I love his drawings too much.”

So, Khoo first blew Tatsumi’s comic frames up to fit a movie screen to get his “storyboards.” Then, live actors played scenes from Tatsumi’s comics and Khoo captured them with a camcorder. Next, Khoo edited their movements for flow and turned this footage over to the Indonesian animators.

“After three or four months of fine tuning, we found a rhythm,” Khoo said. To bring that out, Khoo’s son, Christopher, 13, wrote three melodies that form the film’s theme, music that complements a score composed by Christine Sham.

The film’s colors and drawing are meant to mimic the gekiga (dramatic pictures) style the Japanese master developed in the late 1950s that would shape comics in his homeland, and around the world, for decades.

Khoo said some of the film’s episodes are “more Chet Baker blues-jazz,” drawn in different shades and tones of the same color, while the narrative bits from Tatsumi’s life are in full color, “back into the life of a young boy.”

“Sensei always tells me that if he couldn’t draw he wouldn’t know what to do. He sold drawing to magazines. He used that talent to put food on the table for a family with four kids, but then realized he could use that talent to do more.

“I hope that when this film premieres at Cannes, even non comics fans will want to revisit these stories because they are beautiful,” Khoo said. “I wanted to give him and his style the international audience they so deserve.”

Khoo first put Singapore on the international film map in 1995 when his debut feature, Mee Pok Man, won prizes at Fukuoka, Pusan and Singapore. In 1997, his 12 Storeys was the first Singaporean film to be invited to participate at Cannes.

Khoo’s third feature, Be With Me, opened the Directors’ Fortnight in 2005 and in 2008, Khoo’s affair with France continued when the French Minister of Culture named him Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

His last film, the 2008 feature My Magic, was the first Singaporean film to compete for the Palme d’Or.