Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The name Yoshihiro Tatsumi probably won't be familiar to most British cinemagoers unless they are afficionados of comics, Japanese comics and manga in particular. But, in fact, Tatsumi has been hugely influential in the rise of 'gekiga' manga - a form of alternative Japanese comic art and storytelling that is aimed at more adult audiences and can deal with weighty themes such as isolation, lust, suicide and the fallout from the Second World War.

Born in Osaka, Japan in 1935, Yoshihiro Tatsumi survived the war and lived through the rebirth of Japan during and after the Allied occupation. He eventually began writing and drawing comics for a sophisticated adult readership in a more realistic style than was common at the time, slogging his way up the chain of manga publishing and meeting some of the most influential artists and authors of the time - including his idol Tezuka Osamu, the creator of Astro Boy.

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He eventually condensed his formative years into the massive illustrated and award-winning biography A Drifting Life, an 800-plus page behemoth (currently available in English from Drawn and Quarterly) that chronicles in unsentimental fashion his early life through to his hard-won success in the manga industry.

The film Tatsumi, from director Eric Khoo, is an adaptation of A Drifting Life that imitates Tatsumi's actual artistic style for the animation. It also interweaves animated versions of Tatsumi's dark short stories – Hell, Beloved Monkey, Just A Man, Good-Bye and Occupied – into the narrative. The shorts themselves highlight themes and concerns, often particular to certain eras and decades of change in Japan.

Murder, obsession, revenge and the shadow of the mushroom cloud all feature – Tatsumi was not an artist or author willing to shy away from the darkness in men's hearts. Tatsumi's art style is unsentimental and stripped down, with his stories often emphasising the difficulties and mundanities of keeping one's head above water, the flaws inherent in the human heart, and the struggle to keep one's passion and hope alive in modern Japan. Those expecting a Disney film will be disappointed indeed. A sad, mournful and bittersweet air pervades the entire film both in the shorts and the biographical segments, as if Tatsumi's success and clear artistic ability never allowed him to outrun certain doubts and worries.

The fact that Tatsumi and the history of manga are little known in the UK and this short-running film understandably has to skip over huge chunks of his life, means this is less informative than it might have been. Perhaps if the short stories had not been woven into the biographical tale and there was more focus purely on Tatsumi himself and the intricacies of working in the manga industry the film would have a more unified and satisfying feel.

It's a case of two strands sitting quite well together - but neither has enough running time. Though Tatsumi is interesting and has a truly unique feel to its animation, and is clearly a careful labour of love, those wanting to get closer to the man will probably want to check the book afterwards.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2012
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Animation based on Yoshihiro Tatsumi's manga memoir A Drifting Life and other short stories.
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Director: Eric Khoo

Writer: Based on the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Starring: Tetsuya Bessho, Motoko Gollent, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Mike Wiluan

Year: 2011

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: Japan


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