Featuring the voices of Tetsuya Bessho, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Written by Eric Khoo from a memoir by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Directed by Eric Khoo. 14A. 94 min. Opens Jan. 25 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Directed by Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, Tatsumi is an animated tribute to Yoshihiro Tatsumi, an artist widely credited with bringing an adult sensibility to Japanese manga in works that essentially pioneered the form of the modern graphic novel. Shifting between excerpts from its subject’s 2009 memoir, A Drifting Life, and adaptations of five of his most famous stories, the film’s contents are anything but cute. While there’s some sweetness to the author’s reminiscences about his family life and an early formative encounter with Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, his tales of urban alienation and human degradation are bleak and brutal enough to make the works of Hubert Selby Jr. seem like Dr. Seuss.
But as rough as things get for the artist’s hapless, hopeless characters—ranging from a factory worker who’s slow to realize he’s no freer than his pitiful pet monkey to a bitter prostitute who gives herself to American GIs—there’s a terrible beauty to both the images on display and Khoo’s film. With its roughhewn visual aesthetic and sometimes shocking frankness, Tatsumi is a worthy companion piece to Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis, two other recent features that disregarded the usual conventions and restrictions of animated film to portray defiantly personal matters. Khoo also succeeds in elucidating the necessary connections between Tatsumi’s largely ordinary life of quiet desperation—depicted in passages narrated by the writer himself—and his raw and ruthless depictions of Japanese society.
Nevertheless, the movie’s grimness may restrict its appeal to admirers of Tatsumi’s printed works and any graphic-novel enthusiast who’d rather get stabbed in the eyes than sit through a Pixar movie.