Snow melting. Crocuses opening to reveal those phosphor-fizz stamens. Clear blue mornings after roaring nights of wind and rain. Spring.
It’s all about rebirth, new hope, the music of nature kicking up a gear after slow-dancing through winter. Eric Khoo’s animation Tatsumi is perfect viewing for the season.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a grey giant of the manga world. The film is a tender, loving tribute to his life and work, anthologising several of his stories and scenes from his life alongside interview footage. It’s also a record of a comic-crazy kid who had to draw, no matter what; of a young man who found his own voice in the midst of the Babel of Japan’s post-Occupation manga industry; and of the constant spring of the creative heart.
Tatsumi was a huge fan of Osamu Tezuka, the “God of Manga” who had erupted into the postwar comic scene as a seventeen-year-old prodigy and changed the game for everyone. But he wanted to take his own work in a different direction. Tezuka’s huge success, and his driving need to keep making as many manga as possible so as to fund his animation studios, had led to a huge spread of titles, but the main strand of his work was still aimed at children, giving them the fun, colour and hope that had been so lacking in post-war occupied Japan. Tatsumi wanted to make something newer, edgier, dirtier – the grunge to Tezuka’s glam-rock. In an interview with Adrian Tomine and Jocelyne Allen, he said that he felt a little ashamed to meet Tezuka after publishing his “not so wholesome” manga.
Tatsumi and his circle of friends preferred to call their comics gekiga (drama-pictures) rather than manga. They felt that manga, with their hi-tech sci-fi stories and glossy, feel-good fantasies where effort brought reward, were for children. Their comics were about everyday life on the urban downside, their characters the kind of people who jostled on the subway and thronged the blue-collar areas and entertainment districts, disaffected, disengaged, disgruntled. In 1957, at the age of 22, Tatsumi began to sell his gritty works through the manga rental libraries, more open to risk than the mainstream publishers.
Like Tezuka’s work a decade earlier, gekiga created a new spring for Japanese comics. The energy of new life, brash, divisive, sometimes angry and destructive, was irresistible. Tezuka, the c0nsummate magpie, gave it the stamp of approval when he began to use gekiga’s tropes and influences in his own work. It was a genuine tribute: an artist who had always borrowed from the best, from the great Russian novelists and the giants of European film and American animation, took the spirit of gekiga and made his own potent magic with it. The results included Adolf, MW, Ayako, Barbara, stories like a grimy string of pearls.
Tatsumi kept working. Like Tezuka, he and his circle grew old. Like Tezuka, they saw new waves of young comic artists rising, determined to become the next big thing. And through it all, through the deaths of other members of the gekiga generation, through the ups and down of the manga industry, Tatsumi kept on making comics. His manga autobiography, A Drifting Life, was published in Japan in 2008.
Singapore comic artist turned film-maker Eric Khoo read it a year later. Khoo had been introduced to Tatsumi’s work by a fellow-fan while he was on military service, but had assumed that the artist was dead. On realising he was wrong, he headed for Japan in the hope of persuading Tatsumi to let him make a film about his life and work. He’s done a fine job.
Tatsumi uses several Tatsumi manga, sensitively animated, to tell the story of a life in comics and a changing nation. The bells and whistles are kept to a minimum, and Tatsumi’s strong lines and telling details are allowed to speak for themselves. The result is a tribute that walks the difficult line between gritty and tender with unselfconscious grace.
For a film-maker from Japanese-occupied Singapore to make a film about a comic artist from American-occupied Japan for a manga-occupied world is, in itself, a meditation on change and growth. So Tatsumi is a perfect film for spring, a reminder that the cycle of darkness and age and death leads to new creation.
You should see it.