The Museum of Modern Art’s film society presented the US premier of Tatsumi last night as part of its ContemporAsian film series. This is an animated biography/animation of the life and word of Japanese “cartoonist” and manga pioneer, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who led the movement in the late 1950s to move Japanese manga out of the realm of children’s comics to the art form now recognized as long form graphic novels.
I was into comics about as much as the next kid, but never really geeked out over them and have never been drawn to Japanese manga or anime. Speed Racer was about as much as I could take.
The film, directed by Singapore director Eric Khoo, intersperses a animated biography of Tasumi (based on Tatsumi’s autobiography, A Drifting Life) from his childhood during World War II through his life in the post-war 50s and the economic explosion of the 70s with animated versions of his “novels”, a form he invented and dubbed gekiga, or “dramatic pictures.” There were five stories retold in the film. The first was a very heavy story about a young photographer who snaps a picture of a shadow of a son comforting his mother at the instant the bomb went off over Hiroshima, baking their silhouette into a wrecked wall. There was a terrible tale of a factory worker who lives alone with a pet monkey, loses his arm in a machine accident, and decides to free the monkey by dropping it into the monkey cage at the zoo, only to watch in horror as the zoo monkeys tear it to shreds. A story of a post-war whore who takes up with a GI and performs drunken incest with her father. A failed manga artist who decides to move from children’s stories to porn and is caught drawing lewd grafitti on the wall of a public toilet (lots of vomit and poo in that one). A retiree who hates his wife and wants to go out with a bang by having one last love affair but winds up being impotent when he gets his chance …..
This was heavy stuff. Some of the audience would get up and walk out towards the end when things got particularly heavy. But most of the audience was composed of Japanese ex-pats, and my sense was Tatsumi is a very good story teller with a penchant for getting into the complex post-war Japanese zeitgeist in a way an American can never really understand. Good film. Glad I went. Made me uncomfortable, choked me up, and I loved the blend of biography and fiction.
Having been to Japan a grand total of two times, I can barely claim to understand the culture, but Tatsumi seemed to confirm, in a bleak way, my darkest projections of what life must have been in that fascinating society in the days following the nuclear explosions through the astonishing rebirth as a world power; all told across the span of one man’s life.