Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.
Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.
The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.
Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.
There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.
Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.