In Japan, Yoshihiro Tatsumi is an important creative figure, having branded the adult-oriented manga style of gekiga, which elevated the form to serious levels of narrative equal to the headiest literature. In 2010, Tatsumi released a massive graphic autobiography, “A Drifting Life,” a gentle endeavor that revealed in great detail the process by which he became such an eventual success, both creatively and commercially, that grabbed attention worldwide.
Singaporan filmmaker Eric Khoo’s “Tatsumi” is presented as an animated adaptation of Tatsumi’s autobiography, but it really isn’t, and because of that, much more ambitious than any film project of the subject matter that you would expect.
Khoo knows that Tatsumi is still of limited fame abroad, and to present his life without context for the reason it is worth presenting it misses a chance that was likely not to repeat itself. Khoo makes the very interesting decision of wrapping a pared-down biography of Tatsumi’s career around adaptations of five of his short stories, powerful nuggets of the dark soul of Japan that will pummel any doubters that the form of manga has anything to offer.
Dark souls are indeed the specialty of Tatsumi’s narrative focus, and this film gathers some of his most effective pieces, including the disturbing “Good Bye,” about a Japanese prostitute and her father; “Hell,” a devastating analysis of Hiroshima as a turning point in history by making Japan a victim and obscuring the uncomfortable realities; and “Just A Man,” a gloomy accounting of the soulless, demeaning existence of modern working man in Japan.
While the graphic novel really unveiled the intricacies of the history of manga and its place in Japanese culture, as well as the personal life of Tatsumi, the film lets go of the microscope in favor of a broader lens and, in doing so, makes it a mandatory introduction to the work of one of the great narrative artists in the world that may have escaped your attention — until now.