I feel a certain ambivalence when talking about Eric Khoo’s film Tatsumi showing at the 6th San Francisco International Animation Festival running from November 10-13th. I am not a reader of much manga and knew nothing about the supposedly important manga artist, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, featured in the film. As a result, I am reliant on this film, this mash-up of first-person memoir narrated by Tatsumi himself and animated realizations of a selection of his significant manga works, for what I relay here. I am more familiar with the director than his subject.
So let me start with what I know. Eric Khoo is the most well-known Singaporean directors on the world cinema circuit. I picked up a box set of his films at the infamous Durian-shaped cultural center during my first visit to Singapore, which at the time meant only two films, Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997). I enjoyed both films, but found 12 Storeys more memorable for its portrayal of a family of dysfunction against the public image of Singapore as a leader in promulgating so-called superior Asian family values that were used by journalists as a simplistic shorthand for the success of Singapore and other ‘Asian Tiger’ economies of the 1990’s. (That is, before they crashed, which had nothing to do with those formerly lauded, superior family values, I’m sure.) Sadly, I was too tired from my day job to sustain consciousness during my one chance to see Khoo’s Be With Me (2005) at the San Francisco International Film Festival and haven’t had a chance to see My Magic (2008), but the crowd at Wikipedia tells me that Le Monde magazine voted My Magic one of the best films of its year. His short “No Day Off” was part of the Jeonju International Film Festival’s Digital Project in 2006. The entire Jeonju Digital Project was brought to San Francisco by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts earlier this year. The triptych-ed portrayal of the lives of domestic workers in Singapore through the pseudo-documentary portrayal of one such worker from Indonesia in “No Day Off” was one of my favorites of this important series.
Tatsumi is Khoo’s first animated feature and Tatsumi himself was a manga artist, not an animator. Actually, as us neophytes to Tatsumi learn from the film, Tatsumi is a gekiga artist. Gekiga is a style of manga that differentiates itself from manga intended for children or teenagers by depicting grittier, more disturbing stories intended for adult audiences. Another aspect of gekiga that differentiates it from other sequential art forms is its atemporality. In discussing this aspect in his book Beautiful Fighting Girl (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), Saito Tamaki sets up a binary between the “cinematic time”, or linear flowing chronological time of manga like Ishinomori Shotaro’s Masked Rider, versus the “gekiga time” or kairological time. Saito argues “gekiga time” actually suppresses chronological time to represent time as it is actually experienced by individuals. (Think of a sporting event or movie that you are surprised has come to an end ‘so fast’ or a boring 30 minute lecture or obligatory event that you feel is taking hours.) Saito continues to argue that gekiga is less transferable to live-action films because of this kairological time.
This background enables an interesting lens with which to view Tatsumi the film. Khoo and Tatsumi select manga that underscore moments in the memoir’s linear time-line, yet the actual animated realizations of the manga do disrupt this sense of chronological time. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. I actually find it very helpful how the separation between the narrative styles feels. We experience a severing of narratives between the two narrative forms, as if the titles that introduce the animated-manga are unnecessary. This disruption enables us to immerse ourselves within the disturbing worlds of Tatsumi’s manga. From “Hell”, Tatsumi’s layered morality play on the after effects of the United States dropping an atomic bomb upon the city of Hiroshima; “Beloved Monkey”, a tragic tale of a naive factory worker; “Just a Man”, Tatsumi’s pathetic rendition of the impotency of a salaryman; “Occupied”, about a manga artist at the razor’s edge of realizing his true muse; and “Good-bye”, where a woman’s body becomes the landscape for the impact of the U.S. military’s presence in Japan after the war, each take on their own feel of time separate from the wider film’s straight historical narrative.
When I asked my wife if she was familiar with Tatsumi, I used the reference that he was mentored by the “Godfather of Anime” Tezuka Osamu, most famous in Western minds for Astro Boy. Her response was that Tezuka mentored a lot of people so such a comment didn’t distinguish anyone in her mind. So regardless of the likelihood that Tezuka’s relationship with Tatsumi was not unique, the fact that Tezuka had a huge impact on Tatsumi’s life is made clear by Tatsumi’s narration and Khoo’s direction. In fact, knowing nothing about Tatsumi before this film, Khoo’s tight running time does a good job of compartmentalizing the important historical and personal factors that play into Tatsumi’s work.
Khoo’s direction of this film about a gekiga artist who began challenging what could and could not be said (and drawn) in Japanese culture underscores the robust trans-Asian production that has accelerated in the past decade. In this case, we have a film about the life of a significant figure in Japan produced in Singapore while most of the actual animation was done in Indonesia. Considering the sexual content and the fact that the film celebrates a citizen from a former colonizer, it appears that Singapore is indeed making some improvements when it comes to censorship of artistic expression. Khoo is a driving force behind this change, but he is definitely not the only participant. Another representative is journalist Cherian George who has dubbed his country ‘The Air-Conditioned Nation” as a metaphor about the politics of comfort and control in Singapore. This metaphor works off former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s statements about how important the air-conditioner and other forms of climate control were to making Singapore the economic success it has been for some. Tatsumi doesn’t represent a drastic shift taking place in Singapore, but it does hint that the government’s grip on the cultural thermostat has been slightly relaxed to allow for the raising of a little more artistic heat.
Tatsumi screens at the SF Film Society/New People Cinema on Friday, November 11th at 9:00pm. For details and tickets, please visit the San Francisco Film Society page here.