Dir/scr: Eric Khoo. Singapore. 2011. 96mins


Roughly speaking, gekiga (dramatic pictures) is to manga (whimsical drawings) what the graphic novel is to the comic book; Yoshihiro Tatsumi started the movement in 1957. That’s really all the knowledge the viewer needs to appreciate Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi, an animated tribute to the 75-year-old artist. That, and a little bit of patience as the film haltingly finds its way into its subject. The stories will do the rest.

What comes across most powerfully from Tatsumi’s stories is a sense of abasement and alienation in a destroyed, often post-apocalyptic landscape.

Khoo (Be With Me), a former comic artist who has revered Tatsumi his whole career, presents a tender-hearted take on the artist’s life bracketed by five of his stories, presented on film for the first time, which are anything but. These are blistering, dark tales of post-war occupied Japan which must have been radical for their time and still pack a tremendous punch.

The combination of the two strands grows more effective as Khoo’s restrained 96-minute piece plays out and while wide play is a challenge due to the niche subject matter, Tatsumi should perform well in specialised arthouse and on festival circuits, prospering as a library title.

Tatsumi is wholly animated, with each story - Hell, Beloved Monkey, Just A Man, Occupied and Good-Bye - broken up by scenes from Tatsumi’s own autobiography (A Drifting Life) which are voiced by the artist himself. The styles shift subtly in creative animation director Phil Mitchell’s realisation of a cinematic manga, which is layered and delicately colour shaded, with backgrounds sometimes fading to shadow play. Tatsumi’s biographical segments are in full colour, while the individual stories play on tones ranging from blue to orange and, most powerfully, the stained sepia of Good-Bye.

What comes across most powerfully from Tatsumi’s stories is a sense of abasement and alienation in a destroyed, often post-apocalyptic landscape (Hell is about Hiroshima, and is reminiscent - or the forefather of - Ari Folman’s work in Waltz With Bashir). These are complete and nuanced pieces, each a novella of images, mostly involving an “everyman” figure who looks similar to Tatsumi himself, with his round face and button eyes (again, until the last). And they’re cinematic, despite being so rooted in the manga aesthetic: according to the film’s accompanying notes, Tatsumi gave the creative team detailed panels and framings for his work.

In between, the artist’s own life story could also be interpreted as an ‘everyman’ voyage of that era in Japan until his works of fiction give the lie to that assumption, an interesting contrast. Despite a jealous brother, this is no Crumb, however; Tatsumi’s stories shout the loudest.

Tatsumi is episodic; a film of contrasts which takes a while to find its rhythm. In this respect, it isn’t smoothed by the artist’s devotion to manga legend Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy), who encouraged the young artist and eventually became his rival. Initial focus on the anniversary of Tezuka’s death is confusing and could perhaps have come later, when Tatsumi’s own chronology is more securely established.

Production companies: Zhao Wei Films, Infinite Frameworks
International sales: The Match Factory, www.matchfactory.de
Producers: Cheng Tan-fong, Phil Mitchell, Freddie Yeo, Eric Khoo
Creative animation director: Phil Mitchell
Music: Christopher Khoo, Christine Sham
Featured voices: Tetsuya Bessho, Yoshihiro Tatsumi