Year: 2011
Country: Singapore
Language: Japanese
Director: Eric Khoo
Screenplay: Eric Khoo
Art Animation Director: Phil Mitchell
Christopher Khoo, Christine Sham
Runtime: 98 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Film’s official website: Tatsumi

Seen at a Preview Screening for ICA members. The ICA will be showing Tatsumi again from January 13 to February 2, 2012.

It often feels that there is a whole world between animated features in the West (or only the US?) and elsewhere. The recently announced nominees for the Golden Globes award “Best Animated Film” (The Adventures of Tintin, Arthur Christmas, Cars 2, Puss in Boots, Rango) were a vivid reminder of this, echoing the equally homogeneous nominee lists (winners in bold) from previous years:

2011: Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, L’illusioniste/The Illusionist, Tangled, Toy Story 3
2010: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, Up
2009: Bolt, Kung Fu Panda, Wall-E
2008: Bee Movie, Ratatouille, The Simpsons Movie
2007: Cars, Happy Feet, Monster House*

Gallery: Golden Globes Best Animated Film Winners (2007-2011)

With one or two exceptions (L’illusioniste/The Illusionist and Coraline), all these productions are let’s-feel-good-and-entertain-the-kids stories, as if this were all that animated features are good for. And this is the crux: particularly in the US, this is essentially all that animated films are good for. Animated films equal films for children. Films for children equal sugarcoated, fun stories that largely, if not entirely, avoid tackling any more serious issues and come with a guaranteed-happy-ending stamp. All this is obvious from 99% of the animated features produced in America, from the nominees for major awards (although, admittedly, the Academy Awards have been a bit more daring and international in their ‘animated film’ selection). But what about films like 秒速5センチメートル (5 cms per Second)? ואלס עם באשי (Waltz with Bashir)? The Secret of Kells? マイマイ新子と千年の魔法 (Mai Mai Miracle)? Chico & Rita? カラフル (Colourful)? 돼지의 왕 (The King of Pigs)? Le Chat du rabbin (The Rabbi’s Cat)? And what about Tatsumi? They are not on the horizon of American cinema it seems.

Gallery: The “Could Have Been Nominees” – Notable Animated Films from 2007-2011

Meanwhile, Asian animation is indeed a whole other world, if not universe, as the attitudes – both within the industry and from consumers – fundamentally differ. There are plenty of animated films made for an exclusively adult audience, while ‘children’s anime’ will not shy away from the realities of life – even the light-hearted 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (Arrietty) has a child facing a life-threatening heart operation, with no reassurance at the end whether he will survive the surgery or not.** What we have to realise is that the culture of animated films in countries like Japan is vastly different from the culture of animated films in the US (and possibly the West more generally), an observation that can be extended to comics as well. This, however, was not always so, and Tatsumi doubly – in form and content, as anime and as manga – sheds light on this.

Within seconds of watching viewers of Tatsumi will realise that it is a dark film as harrowing images of World War II – the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima – appear on the screen:

地獄 (Jigoku/Hell)

This is where the story of Tatsumi Yoshihiro, a renown Japanese manga artist, begins. Born in 1935, a childhood and coming of age during years of war and postwar shaped his view of the world. Unlike the manga (漫画, kanji characters which literally translate as “whimsical drawings”) published and aimed primarily at children at the time, Tatsumi was drawn to more serious issues and created stories with adult subject matter. Wanting to distinguish his work from the comics for children, he coined the term gekiga (劇画), or “dramatic pictures”, in 1957, accompanied by a manifesto which was adopted by other artists with the same interests. The animated film is closely based on his autobiographical manga 劇画漂流 (Gekiga Hyōryū/A Drifting Life), first published in 2009. Both an account of the pioneering mangaka’s life, as well as a fictional narrative featuring several of Tatsumi’s stories (Hell, Beloved Monkey, Occupied, Goodbye and Just a Man), the film gives insight into the history of manga and socio-politic and economic situation of postwar Japan.

Tatsumi’s stories depict a dismal world in which there is little hope for individuals as well as for humanity as a whole. Loners, losers, murderers and prostitutes are the protagonists, and are all irremediably tied to their fate. The artistic style amplifies the bleakness that pervades the film, offerings us monochrome black and white drawings at the beginning, with subdued colours – always delineated in black – following later. The animation is simplistic: as Phil Mitchell, Tatsumi’s Creative Animation Director, explains, the film is an “animated manga” more than anything else, with layers added beneath 2-D drawings and preserving the feel of the static image. The aim was for the artwork to look like Tatsumi’s, for the film to feel as if the mangaka himself was drawing it. There is thus no state-of-the-art 3-D CGI here, but technology that strips animation to its most basic form, directing the viewer’s attention towards the art and the stories told. And Tatsumi’s creations captivate. Grim they are, but intricately drawn and fascinatingly beautiful at the same time, with the drawing that  – in a switch to ‘real images’ in the final shot – the artist creates before our very eyes being an awe-inspiring testimony to this.

The footage at the end of the film was not Tatsumi’s only involvement in the film. He also provided the narrative voice during the autobiographical segments, giving further authenticity to what is a “gorgeous grown-up animated love letter to Manga legend Tatsumi Yoshihiro” (ICA).

“Love letter” indeed: in interviews, Eric Khoo reveals his close connection to Tatsumi, his awe of him as a young man in his early twenties, the inspiration that he derived from reading Tatsumi’s mangas then, and the inspiration that came, years later, from reading A Drifting Life in a single night shortly after it was published to make this tribute despite being an animation rookie. Tatsumi’s story, as we learnt from the film, is remarkably similar – he too was driven to create by an artist he admired. Let’s hope then that this work too will spark someone’s imagination and continue the legacy.

Overall verdict: A must-see for manga-lovers, a should-see for anyone wanting to expand their horizon on comics and animated films.

Rating: 8/10

Bonus fact: Christopher Khoo, the director’s 13-year old son, composed three pieces of the film’s score.

Bonus links:

Image Gallery:


*The award was only instituted in 2007. Also note that I am not trying to suggest these films are bad – How to Train Your Dragon had some lovely scenes and any work that forgoes dialogue for significant amounts of time, such as Wall-e does, instantly earns my appreciation. What the Golden Globes nominee lists do reveal is a very limited selection of films that have come out of a specific film animation-making tradition and voters that have no particular interest in or understanding of the wider world of animated films – despite the fact that much of the exciting stuff is happening elsewhere.

**It’s probably a good thing that Studio Ghibli, after the Nausicaä fiasco, implemented a strict “no edits” licensing policy.