Part biography, part short story compilation, Tatsumi animates the life and selected works of mangaka (Japanese manga artist) Yoshihiro Tatsumi in a film that will please fans and newcomers alike. As a newcomer, it was an education on both the man and the genre of comic books that he helped elevate in Japan. Manga gets defined here at as “comic books with adult-oriented storylines” in a title card that I assume was added to the North American release for the benefit of the uninitiated Westerners.
First published at the age of 14, Tatsumi has been a major contributor to this art form for over six decades now and coined the term “gekiga” (which translates to “dramatic pictures”) to disassociate his work from the more schlocky manga that was prevalent at the time. While he doesn’t really have a Western equivalent, the not-for-kids graphic novels bring to mind Frank Miller and his gritty social realism has brought upon comparisons with noir author Raymond Carver.
The film oscillates between biographical segments narrated by Tatsumi himself taken from his memoir A Drifting Life and five short stories, each more harrowing than the one that precedes it. The stories are presented chronologically as they were written to demonstrate the artist’s growth and altering themes throughout his career. While each unique in their own way, they are all devastatingly downtrodden as he seems to favour doomed characters. Subjects the stories touch upon include Japan’s nuclear fallout, matricide, dismemberment, sex addiction, adultery, fetishes, prostitution, and incest. In summation, this ain’t Disney. Eventually the interspersed story of Tatsumi’s own life become moments of levity as his is the only tale that gets a happy ending.
This is Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s first foray into animated filmmaking though the hard-hitting content remains true to the live action films he’s known for. He also remains faithful to Tatsumi’s style and imagery by keeping the animation simple with minimal movements resembling 2D cut outs of the original artwork come to life.