I penned this film review originally for the Forbidden Planet blog:
Directed by Eric Khoo
Zhao Wei Films/The Match Factory
Singaporean director and former comic creator Eric Khoo debuted his homage to legendary Japanese comics creator Yoshihiro Tatsumi at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival last spring, an animated feature which draws largely on Tatsumi’s much-acclaimed A Drifting Life (published in English by the good folks at Drawn & Quarterly). It’s an interesting work exploring the life and career of the godfather of the gekiga form of manga, which helped establish the comics form in Japan as a medium which could also appeal to an adult audience and not just child readers, combined with animating some of Tatsumi’s own short comic stories such as Occupied (our young artist works so hard on his children’s strips he makes himself ill, only to find new inspiration in an unlikely spot), Hell (an army reporter is sent to document the devastation of Hiroshima after the atomic blast), Good-Bye (a prostitute daughter and estranged drunken father struggle with their relationship and to survive in American occupied post-war Japan) and more.
It’s an interesting approach to documenting one of the most influential creators from the Japanese comics scene, taking us from his childhood, growing up in post-war Japan, being influenced by his big brother’s drawing, the work of manga godfather Tezuka (who he still respectfully refers to as Mister Tezuka), his first success as a boy winning newspaper comics competitions and getting a break when one of those newspapers decides to do a report on his success in the manga competitions, helping lead the way for him to work on his own children’s strips to appear regularly. This encouraging early success is diluted, however, by problems at home – his brother is often forced to stay in bed with a serious illness and slowly comes to resent his younger brother being able to go out and about while he remains an invalid. His drawing during his enforced convalescence had inspired Tatsumi but now his younger brother’s growing success fed his brother’s resentment and the fact that Tatsumi’s competition success meant he earned money which he gave to his mother to help the family finances because his father was less than efficient at looking after them made it worse.
(In Hell a young man is dispatched to document the dreadful aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing)
The film criss-crosses between animated adaptations of Tatsumi’s own short manga tales, mostly in black and white like the comics, and autobiographical sections which are in colour. The level of animation in both strands is fairly simple, it has to be said, but given the low budget that isn’t surprising. Besides which I suspect the fairly simple animation methods is a deliberate stylistic choice by Khoo and he would have stuck with it even if he had the budget for the much more expensive and time consuming forms of animation. And he would have been right to stick with the simpler version because it takes Tatsumi’s own iconic visuals, which themselves were often influenced by imagery from films and simply adapt them to the moving form of animated film, maintaining Tatsumi’s clear style effectively, something fans of his books will appreciate (and if you are new to his work then it is a good introduction to his style).
The adaptations of the short manga tales is simple but effective, although for anyone who has read the original comics (which would, I imagine, be a lot of the potential audience for the film, surely?) they don’t really offer anything new. Personally I found Hell the most effective, following a young man sent to Hiroshima, taking photographs of the nuclear devastation, including a shadow of a mother and child burnt into a wall by the blast. Years later he takes this picture to the newspapers and in the 50s it becomes an emblem of the growing anti nuclear weapon movement, leading to an international campaign, fame for the photographer (who feels guilt at making a living from documenting suffering) and yet it may all be built on an unintentional false assumption…
(young Tatsumi tells the newspaper reporters of his love for the work of Tezuka)
For myself I found the autobiographical segments to be far more fascinating, not least because Tatsumi himself was not only involved in the making of the film, especially those sections, but because he himself lends his voice to it, giving those parts an air of authenticity, the artist’s own stamp of approval, and it is quite fascinating to hear Tatsumi in his own words speaking about his life. There’s much there to fascinate anyone interested in the comics medium, regardless of their level of knowledge of the Japanese scene – some elements are pretty universal, such as having to move to the big city (leaving Osaka for Tokyo) to pursue work opportunities, struggling to find your own creative voice and style, build a reputation, secure regular work and more that I think any comics creator today, in any country or language, would still identify with.
I was particularly fascinated by sections where young Tatsumi is sharing an apartment with fellow cartoonists, all trying to make their mark. Determined to show that manga can be aimed squarely at an adult readership and deal with mature themes he becomes frustrated with the virulent reaction these new gekiga strips and the ‘concerned’ parents and teachers who attack it for being a bad influence on younger readers. It’s not for younger readers, it’s for adults, he rails, so how can it be a bad influence. Ah, his friend comments, but in the manga rental stores (where readers can borrow several comics in one go for a handful of Yen) our work is shelved right alongside the main ranks of kid’s manga, you see… It’s a problem that has beset the comics medium around the world, irrespective or language or culture – those who don’t read them often assume they are aimed only at children, so are horrified if they then see comics which pursue serious, adult storylines, not realising that they are not meant for younger eyes. The struggle to have readers accept that the medium can deal with mature themes and storylines and not just child-like jolly romps has been going on for decades, and continues still. Likewise the claims, usually by those who haven’t actually read the books but decide to pronounce judgement on them anyway (for the ‘greater good’ of course), that comics exert some svengali like evil influence to corrupt the innocent is something that’s been going on for decades in all countries, and indeed is still a problem today, and it is remarkable to think of Tatsumi nailing his gekiga manifesto the mast and dealing with these problems decades ago.
The autobiographical sections also include happier moments, not the least of which two important meetings in his life, one as an adult, meeting the woman who would be his wife, one as a young boy being introduced to the great Osamu Tezuka himself, a remarkable moment for a young boy, hugely influenced by him, just at the very start of his artistic career and being taken to meet his great hero who greets him warmly. As I said I think I found the autobiographical chapters to be the most interesting, but the comics adaptations laced throughout are also with merit and for those in the audience who haven’t read much Tatsumi they function as a good introduction to some of his themes and styles. And as with Tatsumi’s work itself the film shows that the manga world is far broader than a cursory glance at ranks of multi-volume younger reader series might suggest to those who haven’t dabbled in it much (I include myself in those ranks, recent Indy and underground manga translations by D&Q (including Tatsumi’s work), Fantagraphics and Top Shelf have been a great eye-opener to the diversity of adult manga work), and that certain problems are pretty much universal to comics creators everywhere. The film is getting a release on the arthouse cinema circuit in the UK at the moment – I spotted it due this month in Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, so check your own local Indy/arthouse cinemas to keep an eye out for it, it’s certainly well worth your time, if you are already a fan of Tatsumi or new to his work, it’s of huge interest to anyone with a love of the comics medium.