Tatsumi: Cannes 2011 Review

Rory Daniel
A fascinating and ultimately moving tribute to a seminal comic artist’s dark, disquieting but powerful works.

Director Eric Khoo tells the story of Yoshihiro Tatsumi in five parts

Cannes – “The Horror! The Horror!” This is how one might react to the human heart of darkness and the misery of modern existence painted by Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s "gekiga"–comics for adults. In the animated feature Tatsumi, director Eric Khoo adapts five of his short stories for the screen and interweaves them with the artist’s life, distilled from his 800 page graphic biography A Drifting Life. While it evinces a mood that is unutterably sad, yet indescribably beautiful, the sinister and decidedly adult subject matter may scale down its widespread marketability, but “otakus” of Japanese manga and anime will take to this like fish to water.

Khoo attributes Tatsumi as a primary source of creative inspiration when he started out as a manga artist in Singapore. In a rare gesture of respect, Khoo keeps his auteur’s voice from ringing above the material. His choices of original music, color tones and a lyrical editing style are nuanced and thoughtful, underscoring the cinematic effect of Tatsumi’s hand-drawn images with an authentic Japanese feel.

Born in Osaka in 1935, Tatsumi began submitting his drawings to magazines and newspapers during junior high. He coined the term gekiga (pictorial drama) to define the adult-oriented genre comics he pioneered in the late '50s, as opposed to manga written for children.

Each stage in Tatsumi’s life is dramatized to somehow correlate with one particular story. The tales, set in different periods, in turn reflect the zeitgeist of successive eras, reinforced by news announcements of landmark events sandwiched between them. This interplay of personal experience, fiction and socio-political development form a fascinating condensed document of Showa history.

The five stories: "Hell," "Beloved Monkey," "Just a Man," "Occupied" and "Good-bye" deal with such dark materials as murder, mutilation, philandering, pornography and incest. There are no happy endings, and no solution to the loneliness, humiliation and casual cruelty consistently on display. Looking at their subtext, one can see why Tatsumi would be as a kindred spirit of Khoo, who also has a penchant for macabre but cool dissection of human perversion fostered by the repressiveness of Singaporean society.

Each story delivers a punch with a twist that is either full of pathos or bathos. "Hell" opens with the definitive ravage of war–the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima. But it turns conventional Japanese interpretation of this subject on its head by delving into evil nascent in Everyman, which creates hell in the mind. "In Beloved Monkey," the tragic shared fates of a factory worker and his pet monkey are enhanced by sound effects which capture the terror of predatory instincts–both human and animal.

A carefully conceived color scheme unites the biographical sections which are animated in full color with the fictional tales which imitate the simplicity of the ink drawings–starting with black-and-white and gradually moving up to two-tone combinations of gray, orange or blue, concluding with sepia which reflects the story’s theme of soiled love. The news announcements are presented like wood-block prints. Animation director Phil Mitchell generates flow for the 2D images by adding layers to the background.

Given the uncompromising, shattering power of the stories, the account of Tatsumi’s life seem less engaging, though Tatsumi’s own voice-over give a down-to-earth dimension that moderates the more versatile and dramatic narration of an ensemble of characters by actor-radio-host Tetsuya Bessho. Khoo’s 13-year-old son Christopher’s three music compositions also lend the biographical segments a sweetly rueful timbre.

The film is bookended by Tatsumi’s tribute to his idol Osamu Tezuka, which forms a touching parallel with Khoo’s celebration of Tatsumi through this film.