Cannes 2011 Review: Eric Khoo’s Tatsumi

The best thing about the selection in Un Certain Regard is that it often throws up absolute gems of films that wouldn’t necessarily land on my radar otherwise (which is entirely the point of Cannes’ secondary competition, after all). This year, the selection hasn’t been hugely exciting (and one film even sparked the first, and hopefully only walk-out by yours truly), but in amongst the usual oblique material, little islands of enjoyment like Restless, shine even more by comparison.

Now, Eric Khoo‘s animation Tatsumi can count itself among the biggest successes of this year’s Un Certain Regard alongside Gus Van Sant’s latest. The film is based on Japanese comics artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s manga memoir “A Drifting Life” as well as five of his earlier short stories, using the artist’s own iconic gekiga artistic style, and a minimalist approach to animation.

The film charts a course through Tatsumi’s career, focusing on his early beginnings as a comics artist in post-war occupied Japan, meeting and learning from his idol Osamu Tezuka, and inventing the gekiga genre of Japanese comics for adults, as well as reproducing segments based on Tatsumi’s five short stories “Hell,” “Beloved Monkey,” “Just a Man,” “Good-Bye” and “Occupied,” which changed the fabric of the manga universe when they were first released.

Chief among the film’s success is its commitment to authenticity. Tatsumi himself was involved in the production (also taking on narrating duties) in order to make sure his source material was being treated correctly, and Khoo confirms that the work was already a strong basis for a cinematic adaptation:

You see, Tatsumi loves cinema, and when he created this new movement of comics using strips with real characters, rather than the four-panel manga convention, he produced works that are like storyboards for a film. All we need to do is stretch them out to a widescreen format. And give them multi-planes, like layers, so there is more depth and feel. I also tweaked certain things, changed some of the sequences of the stories, so for the cinema his stories got a new voice.

The five chosen stories also offer a perfect course through Tatsumi’s work, reflecting his early mentality and subsequent development into darker, more sexually intrigued material. Some of that material is a little provocative, but that is part and parcel of the gekiga movement so it’s an appropriate content choice in the end.

The animation style in Tatsumi is consciously sparse and limited, with color employed in the autobiographical elements of the story, and a limited, almost monochrome palette is used for the sections that are reproduction of Tatsumi’s short stories – a style which directly references the one-color printing technique of the comics themselves. The backgrounds are incredibly well rendered (as depicted wonderfully when the end of the film includes a sped up sequence in which Tatsumi himself draws one scene), and though some of that detail ends up slightly lost out of focus by the natural tendency to train the eyes on main characters, it does add a richness to the image that seems initially at odds with the lack of finesse in the moving animation techniques.

Any overall success of the film will be judged by its reception with Tatsumi and gekiga devotees, but if it introduces new fans to the genre, and to the great man’s work, then it can count itself as a huge success in my book.

The Upside: The stories, from Tatsumi’s own life and work are very engaging snap-shots and the animation pleasingly celebrates the artist’s established aesthetic.

The Downside: Some might say the animation style is lazy, and there isn’t a great deal of dramatic material here to really hook the attention.

Grade: B

Remember to follow me on Twitter for more on-site observations. You can also check out my other filmic writings at

Cannes coverage continues…

Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

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