Directed by Eric Khoo, Tatsumi explores the life and work of the celebrated manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi who created the gekiga style of alternative comic books for adults. Animated in Indonesia with Japanese dialogue and based on Tatsumi’s 800-page memoir “A Drifting Life” and other works, the film was shown in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been selected as the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. It depicts five different historical periods in Japanese history and dramatizes five stories of post-war Japan: “Hell”, “Beloved Monkey”, “Just a Man”, “Good-Bye” and “Occupied.” These stories with their adult content that includes sex and violence are reported to have drastically altered the medium in Japan.
Tatsumi is the narrator of his own biography and explains how he grew up in a dysfunctional environment with six other children. He began to draw as a child and was ten-years-old when the Second World War ended. When he was a teenager, he started to publish his work and describes a meeting with his idol, Osama Tezuka. Unhappy with the genre that restricted manga to children, he began to experiment with darker themes, designed to appeal to adults. Color is used for his bio and one story, while the others use a monochrome hue.
“Hell” is a bizarre story about a photographer covering the aftermath of Hiroshima and discovers two figures burned onto a wall, that of a boy apparently giving his mother a back massage before the bomb hit. He becomes rich from the sale of this picture until a twist undermines the whole idea. In “Beloved Monkey”, a lapse in judgment by a factory worker results in an unwanted result for his pet monkey. An older worker decides to spend all of his savings on women in “Just a Man’ but the consequences are not what he intended.
“Good-bye” tells the dark story of a prostitute who is abandoned by an American soldier and takes her anger out on her father. The final story, “Occupied” has a man obsessed with graffiti on the walls of public restroom, a story bordering on the offensive. Apparently, these themes are normal for Japanese manga but to a Western audience their appeal is dubious, although the narration by Tatsumi gives the film a feeling of authenticity. Beyond the questionable material, however, Tatsumi’s stories may be commenting on the decay of Japanese society.
©2011 Howard Schumann
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