This offbeat and absorbing project by director Eric Khoo, adapted from Tatsumi’s own work (including his autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life) shows how the visual styles of Japanese animation can be used to tell stories that are as gritty and immediate as any live-action film. It also gives us a peek at a life lived under adversity but never without purpose.
- A creatively-presented and insightful look at a major artistic talent of postwar Japan.
- Tatsumi's stories are staged with delightful artistry.
- Graphic sexuality and violence may make it unsuitable for some audiences.
- Director: Eric Khoo
- Released By: Zhao Wei Films
- Distributed Domestically By: KIMSTIM Inc.
- Price: $29.99 (DVD)
- Age Rating: Unrated (violence, sexuality, adult situations)
- Spring and Chaos
The birth of a creator ...
It’s been said that a movie is not about its subject matter but its approach—that you can make a fascinating film about a dull subject and vice versa. Tatsumi is a fascinating film about a fascinating subject, made all the more interesting by the way it mixes the fact of its subject’s life with the fantasy that he created as part of his legacy.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi grew up in Japan just as it was reeling from and rebuilding in the wake of the devastation left by World War II. His family was poor, and he suffered at the hands of both his alcoholic father and his sickly but abusive brother. Apart from retreating into schoolwork, the only other outlet he had was drawing. Soon Tatsumi was penning one-page comics and sending them into various magazines for prize money, a way to supplement their meager household income. It didn’t always work out: sometimes he would come home and find his father had destroyed his work in a fit of jealous rage.
In time he made enough of a name for himself to begin drawing full-length works. A market opportunity opened up for him: in the wake of the war, with paper in short supply and money tight, shops were springing up that allowed people to read three books for five yen (probably about 50 cents in 1950s dollars). Comics were being created specifically for this “rental manga” market, and Tatsumi soon found employment creating material for those outlets.
... and his creations
What set Tatsumi apart was his subject matter. Instead of offering people an escape from the harsh realities of postwar life, he offered them insight into it. One of Tatsumi’s idols had been Osamu Tezuka, whose impact on both manga and anime after the war was inestimable. As sprightly and cheerful as Tezuka’s work was, it also had serious undertones, and Tatsumi soon took the same approach to heart in his work. (A good domestic analogue might be Will Eisner, especially in works like A Contract with God; especially since Tatsumi himself was nominated for the award created in Eisner’s name.)
We don’t just hear about the way Tatsumi did this in Tatsumi: we see it. Several of his stories are dramatized for us in an animation style that hews closely to the designs of his own work, all of which are clearly linked to phases from his own life, narrated by the man himself. The first and in some ways most devastating, “Inferno,” is Tatsumi’s j’accuse of Japan’s emotional hypocrisy over its feelings about the atomic bomb. In it, a photographer captures a shocking image in the ruins of Hiroshima—a shadow on a wall of a young man giving his aged mother a massage, both now dead from the bomb. The photo earns him both fame and money which he is hard-pressed to turn down, but it comes back to haunt him when he discovers the image in question was a murder scene, with the killer very much alive and contemplating extortion. The conclusion is devastating, a portrait of a life wasted by lies and a society that prefers lies to truth.
Other stories of Tatsumi’s come to life, fueled by the same angry, restless power. An office worker on the verge of retirement contemplates infidelity in the face of having to spend the rest of his days with his loveless and manipulating wife. A prostitute is propositioned for marriage by an American serviceman, and finds that her own father has grown increasingly jealous of her charms. A cartoonist (again, one clearly patterned after a younger Tatsumi) discovers his twisted sexuality after a lifetime of repression. A machinist who keeps a pet monkey loses an arm in an accident and discovers—through a remarkable extended allegory—how easily he become a pariah to his fellow men. They’re not easy to watch, but they are rewarding, and it’s fascinating to see how their animation styles subtly change over the years to match the venues of the original material.
See both the life and the art, side by side
Many movies have been made about artists in which their art and life were both dramatized. Paul Schrader’s Mishima comes to mind, not just because it depicts a fellow Japanese (albeit one of great controversy) but because of the stylized, garish way in which excerpts from four of his stories were brought to life. Tatsumi is more about the intertwining of the life and the art than it is about either one of those alone.
Tatsumi’s admiration for Tezuka fueled his creativity. He met Tezuka early in his career, and was inspired by him to coin a new term for the kind of work he and other compatriots were doing: gekiga, or “dramatic imagery,” as separate from the generic term manga as graphic novels are from mere comics. The movie has less of substance to say about his later life, including his long-standing marriage, but by that time it has already accomplished a great deal.
The most curious thing about Tatsumi is that it wasn’t produced by a Japanese director or studio. It was spearheaded by Eric Khoo of Singapore and indie production house Zhao Wei Films. The question of why one of Japan’s most valuable popular-culture assets had to look to another country to have his work dramatized remains unanswered.