Manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi has always enjoyed a certain level of fame in his home country, where he’s known as the originator of gekiga, a hard-boiled style of manga from the 1960s-’70s. Overseas, however, it’s only since 2009 that his reputation has risen meteorically, after an English-language translation of his massive autobiographical manga, “A Drifting Life,” was published.
It’s perfect timing for Singaporean director Eric Khoo to release his film “Tatsumi,” which blends the mangaka’s (comic-book artist) own coming-of-age story from “A Drifting Life” with a fistful of his most hard-punching Showa Era (1926-89) comics; stories of haunted war veterans, beaten-down salarymen and elusive bar girls, all animated in a style entirely faithful to the original works.
Yet Khoo is no johnny-come-lately to the work of Tatsumi. In Tokyo as a member of the competition jury at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, Khoo found time to talk with The Japan Times about his lifelong love of Tatsumi’s work.
“He’s really the father of alternative comics,” says Khoo. “He was fiercely independent and didn’t rely on a factory to churn out his comics: he wanted to do everything with a personal note.”
Khoo actually started his creative career in comics, over 20 years ago while he was still a draftee in Singapore’s army, drawing panel-styled stuff for newspapers. A friend passed him a compilation of Tatsumi stories, and, as he puts it, “I had read a lot of comics, but this just blew me away.
“I (had been) approached by a book publisher to do a graphic novel, and I was like, “Great!,” but I had no idea what to write. But after reading Tatsumi’s short stories, I was so inspired that I came up with my book in about a month. Then I started making short films, and I think my early short films have a bit of his influence.”
Indeed, anyone who has seen Khoo’s debut feature, “Mee Pok Man,” where a simple-minded noodle seller falls for a beautiful hooker and everything goes to hell, will instantly recognize a seedy Asian-noir milieu that is reminiscent of Tatsumi’s work. But despite the influence, Khoo never knew much about Tatsumi himself until he picked up “A Drifting Life.” It’s an 800-page monster of a comic book, but Khoo read it all in three nights.
“I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy,” he says. “I loved his stories so much, and now his life seemed so inspiring, I had to do a tribute to this man who’d inspired me for so many years.”
A friend of Khoo’s at Fujifilm in Singapore, Masato Yamamoto, set up an introduction and three months later Khoo finally met his idol in a smoky basement coffee shop in Tokyo’s Jinbocho district.
“Of course I was star-struck,” says Khoo with a laugh. “I didn’t know what he’d be like, but after five minutes the guy was so lovely, so warm. The conversation lasted three hours and I showed him some sketches to give him an idea of what I had in mind, and at the end he shook my hand and said, ‘Make it.’ ”
Khoo had never made an animated film, and he somewhat dreaded the prospect. “I’m a very impatient director,” he admits. But he assembled a team in Singapore who began working with a unique blend of hand-drawn images and computer graphics.
“We were very specific in terms of the look, the style,” says Khoo, “so all my young animators had to learn to forge his drawings.” Khoo was careful to give it an appropriately retro feel — making the animation a little “staccato,” so it wasn’t too slick and modern feeling — while actually degrading some of the images to look like a well-worn comic book that had spent decades in a moldy attic. Khoo laughs, remembering the issues this caused: “When the film went to the lab (to print) in Paris, they got in touch with us saying, ‘It’s damaged!'”
For the backdrops, beautifully rendered in muted colors from the Showa Era, Khoo’s team studied old photos and films.
“In a lot of (Tatsumi’s) panels there’s no backdrop. Whenever we were confused I would consult with sensei,” says Khoo, referring to Tatsumi as “teacher.” Perhaps most impressive is how a non-Japanese director was spot-on in his use of Kansai dialect throughout his film.
Tatsumi has described his style of storytelling as “like a screenplay,” and Khoo explains that although he knew Tatsumi had been inspired by French cinema — “It wasn’t just black and white, good and evil, but a lot of gray” — he was still surprised to learn, only when the film was nearly finished, that Tatsumi had wanted to be a filmmaker. “He realized, though, that he didn’t like to work with people, so it would be an impossible profession. But I remember when we were walking down the red carpet at Cannes and he squeezed my hand, and I was like, ‘Sh-t, man, you made a film!’ All his stories are now a film — it’s his film, really.”
Indeed, the results are so good that one wonders whether Khoo might make another animation. “Nope, unless it’s another of sensei’s works,” he replies. “But he has all these incredible stories that were never even published. Maybe he’ll get them translated and published, and if they’re strong enough, maybe we could do another film. I’m such a fan!”
For the immediate future, Khoo’s next film is the racy “In the Room,” a hybrid of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Richard Linklater’s claustrophobic “Tape.” It’s an entire film set within one hotel bedroom, but featuring several stories spanning from the 1940s and the fall of the British Empire to the near future, with the interior design and cast changing with each era. While “Tatsumi” is Khoo’s first film to be distributed in Japan in a long while, “In the Room” will no doubt get some buzz locally due to his casting of Sho Nishino, an idol and porn star. Apparently, says the director, “She can really act.”