J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 02, 2012

ContemporAsian: Tatsumi

Yoshihiro Tatsumi could be called the Japanese Will Eisner. Tatsumi was the leading exponent of Gekiga, or serious manga that tackled adult story lines. Americans that are very hip or awfully geeky will already know Tatsumi’s work, particularly his Eisner winning graphic novel-autobiography, A Drifting Life. For the rest of us, Singaporean Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi (trailer here) serves as a compelling introduction to his career and stories, when the starkly beautiful animated tribute-biography opens this Wednesday at MoMA as part of their ongoing ContemporAsian film series.

Tatsumi was ten when World War II ended. Logically, the American occupation and economic revival of Japan would factor prominently in his life and that of his characters. Khoo intersperses five notable Tatsumi stories, mostly in black-and-white, amid his vivid color adaption of the Gekiga pioneer’s memoir. Psychologically complex and deeply flawed, it is clear how Tatsumi’s characters were shaped by their creator’s experiences. In fact, it is easy to conflate them with Tatsumi, particularly the unfortunate artist in Occupied.

Each of the five constituent stories would stand alone as satisfying self-contained short films. However, the most powerful of the collected adaptations comes first, by virtue of chronology. Hell forthrightly addresses the horrors of Hiroshima and its aftermath, but it takes viewers to some unexpectedly dark places, undercutting simplistic moral judgments. Throughout all five stories, there is a profound sense of alienation, often prodding the protagonists to commit shockingly anti-social acts out of existential compulsion, but their actions are always understandable, in a sadly human way.

Though his life was never as lurid as that of his marginalized characters, Tatsumi’s early years were marked by considerable pain and want. Khoo structures the film in a way that really emphasizes how these struggles instilled a humanistic empathy in Tatsumi, embracing those who were downtrodden and even grotesque. Ultimately, it is rather inspiring to see the artist rise from such mean circumstances to become an acknowledged leader of his field.

Rendered by Singapore-based creative animation director Phil Mitchell in a style akin to Tatsumi’s, the film’s animation is deceptively simple, but eerily expressive. Tatsumi’s warm voice also narrates the biographical portions of the film bearing his name, forging a further connection between subject and viewers.

It really says something when Singapore’s film establishment selects a film about a Japanese artist to represent the country with Academy Award voters. Yet, the film’s undeniable artistry and Khoo’s international reputation had to be a compelling combination leading to its submission for best foreign language film consideration at this year’s Oscars. Indeed, this is a richly rewarding film that deserves considerable international attention. Not just for manga readers, Tatsumi is enthusiastically recommended for broad-based general audiences when it screens at MoMa starting this Wednesday (4/4), through the following Monday (4/9).

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