For Singapore’s Eric Khoo, “Tatsumi” reps an engaging departure from both his home nation and his live-action roots. Structurally similar to the helmer’s “Be With Me,” this animated account of the life and work of Japanese comic-book artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi interweaves biographical elements with adaptations of five of his manga stories, gritty midcentury tales that are said to have revolutionized the medium in Japan with their adult-skewed content. Pic will have legs on the fest circuit but will do best offshore on ancillary in places like Gaul where comicbooks are most revered.
Tatsumi himself narrates his own story, shown via an old-fashioned quasi-cel-animation style with a digital assist; color is used for his bio and one story, while a sparse, nearly monochrome palette is used for the other four stories, mimicking the one-color printing of the original comics.
The artist explains how he was 10 when WWII ended, growing up in an unhappy household of six. A compulsive sketcher from an early age, he started getting work published in his teenage years, inspired by the work of Osamu Tezuka (creator of “Astro Boy”), who eventually became a rival of sorts. Later, growing frustrated with the genre expectations that restricted comics to cutesy stuff for kids, he forged a new, darker aesthetic that he dubbed “gekiga” (literally, “dramatic pictures”), devoted to stories that would cross over to an older demographic.
The tales that unspool here show how Tatsumi’s work evolved over the years, growing increasingly bizarre and explicit in terms of both sex and violence. The first and longest, “Hell,” about a photographer who grows rich from his much-publicized shot of shadows burned onto a wall by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, boasts a “Twilight Zone” feel with its dramatic but hammy twist.
Self-delusion and poor judgment recur as themes in the other four stories. In “Beloved Monkey,” a desperately unlucky factory worker makes a poor decision for his pet. An aged salaryman blows his savings on women in “Just a Man,” a mean-spirited cautionary tale of sorts, which is topped in the misogyny stakes only by “Good-bye,” an account of a floozy who gets dumped by her American G.I. lover and then seeks revenge, inexplicably, by having sex with her own father. The anything-goes spirit of the 1970s sexual revolution is further explored in the particularly twisted “Occupied,” the story of a man obsessed with obscene graffiti in a public toilet; it’s the only tale presented in color.
Pic’s appeal will depend on viewer tolerance for the sometimes offensive subject matter, which is par for the course for modern manga but will be trickier to swallow for international audiences beyond fanboy circles. As a work of animation, “Tatsumi” is pretty rudimentary, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the Japanimation of the period in which it’s largely set. Compositions are based faithfully on Tatsumi’s storyboard-like material, but the characters’ movements are perhaps a bit too limited; backgrounds, as per tradition in anime, are much more richly rendered, and creative animation director Phil Mitchell does a pro job of replicating the menacing cross-hatched shadows that are so characteristic of Tatsumi’s work.