Singapore’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the upcoming Oscars is an animated Japanese-language ode to legendary gekiga artist Yoshiro Tatsumi, based on his autobiography, A Drifting Life. I had no idea who Tatsumi was before I saw Eric Khoo’s striking film, but I was instantly caught up in its provocative back-and-forth on the development of a creative mind and the stories that have sprung from it.
Gekiga is a comic-book genre, adult-oriented manga — not adult as in “pornographic,” but as in exploring mature, sophisticated themes that, sure, sometimes take on a sexual nature, but are in general characterized by moral complexity and grim satire and a decided not-for-children outlook. As I’m unfamiliar with Tatsumi’s body of work, I can’t say if the handful of Tatsumi’s short tales that Khoo chose to dramatize are representative of the artist or are outliers, but, *whew,* are they brutal.
One, about a photographer who comes upon an unexpected image in the blasted city of Hiroshima, takes on a Twilight Zone level of bleak horror; another is a ghastly descent from the everyday alienation of modern industrial civilization to a depth of tragedy so profound I suspect it will haunt me forever. The harsh line drawings, mostly black-and-white or starkly colored, of Tatsumi’s stories are contrasted by the brighter, less impressionistic animation of the sections devoted to the artist’s own life, from his adolescence in postwar Japan — he was 10 years old when the atom bombs fell — to his burgeoning ambitions as a cartoonist.
There’s a sweet stubbornness to Tatsumi — he himself narrates these bits — as he quietly but doggedly refuses to take any setback as an excuse to give up, and takes nothing but inspiration from any opposition from his family or from the industry. This is a wonderful tribute to the creative life that, I can assure you from my own experience, does not require knowledge of the artist for full enjoyment.
‘Tatsumi’ is available to stream in the US on OVID.