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The Mike Toole Show
Tatsumi's Testament

by Michael Toole,

A few days back, I was up too late, browsing around on Netflix as you do. It's fun to just poke around your favorite movie-on-demand site, you see, because it's often overflowing with a variety of agreeable trash-- the waves of bad ripoffs from The Asylum, scores of episodes of mediocre 1990s cartoons (the Iron Man challenge: see how long into a single episode of the 1994 Iron Man TV series you can make it before hastily quitting to watch something less awful), and of course, lots and lots of anime. One thing about Netflix's anime catalog bothers me, though, and that's the lack of movies.

For ongoing TV shows, I'll hit Crunchyroll, or if it's something I want to own, like the Right Stuf's new Princess Knight set; if I'm on Netflix and I'm actually in the anime section, I'm hoping to turn up and old jewel like Memories or Grey: Digital Target. But projects like these seem weirdly elusive on VOD services, which mostly seem to deal in more popular fare like Sekirei and Highschool of the Dead. But then I saw it: Tatsumi!

Tatsumi is a movie. It's a movie that's about a manga artist, based on his autobiographical and fiction manga, and it's in Japanese. But the odd thing is, it's not a Japanese movie. It was conceived and directed by a pretty good Singaporean director named Eric Khoo (I hear good things about his film My Magic, but can't find it around these parts), and most of the animation was produced in Indonesia. The actors include a few folks from Japan, but many of the voices were provided by Japanese expats living in Singapore. The weird mix of nationalities that came together to make this happen is pretty intriguing, and so is the film itself. What's it about? It's about Tatsumi. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, that is.

To hear some scholars and fans tell it, Tatsumi is one of the most important manga artists ever, a restless, ambitious, and troubled creator who pushed hard for realism and hard-hitting stories in the 1950s and 60s, a time when manga was mostly cartoony, general-audiences fare. But in the west, it's taken a pretty long time for this guy to get his due; I feel like I've known about Osamu Tezuka for my entire tenure as a serious anime fan, for example. But I only found out about Tatsumi five years ago. The neat thing is, Tatsumi and Tezuka were contemporaries and comrades.

Tatsumi's first meeting with Dr. Tezuka, expressed vividly in his autobiographical manga A Drifting Life, is one of my favorite parts of the book. It depicts Tezuka as both larger-than-life, looking just the famous guy in his beret, and down to earth, a quiet, bespectacled man who ambles into the room and announces “Hello, I'm Tezuka.” He's both a valuable mentor, who pushes Tatsumi and his young artist pals to make more ambitious work, and a ridiculous genius, an artist so exacting and precise that he can draw nearly perfect line sketches of his “star system” characters, in pen, starting with the hands, and making zero mistakes. I feel like Tezuka should've gotten a little more screen time in the film version of this bit, but it still manages to nicely communicate Tatsumi's sense of loss when Tezuka finally departs their native Osaka for Tokyo-- as the celebrated comic artist is lured away to the big city to eventually transform into a beloved cultural statesman, Tatsumi can only muse, “Tokyo stole Tezuka from us.”

But why was Yoshihiro Tatsumi important? When he was growing up, rental bookstores were popular, simply because postwar shortages made both paper and the act of printing prohibitively expensive. Many of these bookstores were stuffed with manga, but almost all of that manga was buoyant, agreeable stuff like kids’ adventures and adaptations of classic novels (I'm pretty stoked to read this one, actually!). As Tatsumi flowered as a manga artist and started working alongside other artists, the lack of tougher, more complicated works bothered him. He was able to start experimenting with more adult stories thanks to these same rental stores-- he couldn't sell his brief tales of disaffected men and mysterious murders to the magazines, but the rental stores in Osaka were far more amenable to what he was cooking. As the 1950s drew to a close, Tatsumi discussed with his peers, including Golgo 13 creator Takao Saito, what to call this newer, rawer form of manga. Eventually, Tatsumi himself coined the term: gekiga, or “dramatic pictures,” instead of manga.

I've mentioned gekiga in this space a couple of times. Golgo 13 falls into the category, to the extent that LEED Publishing's first attempt to sell English-language Golgo 13 manga plastered the jackets with the term. Outside of those books, though, I pretty much never encountered the term “gekiga” until I started picking up Drawn & Quarterly's handsome, hardcover releases of Tatsumi's manga. But what is the guy's manga like, really?

I think it's appropriate to come up with a separate label for what Tatsumi, plus peers like Susumu Katsumata and Sanpei Shirato, was doing back in the 1960s. I grew up with shonen and shoujo manga, later supplanted by more developed seinen and josei fare, but works like Tatsumi's Abandon the Old in Tokyo stand in incredible contrast to what I think of when I think of manga. His characters are ugly, not stylized. They don't battle the bad guys, pilot mecha, or fret over their relationships, they're weary, broken people running and hiding from old mistakes; my favorite tale from Abandon the Old in Tokyo involves an elderly businessman who just can't bring himself to stop going to work. More than anything else, though, Tatsumi's works-- which are almost entirely short stories-- really encapsulate what “slice of life” means, far more than any manga or anime I've seen elsewhere.

I bring this up because “slice of life” is kind of hilariously misused among anime and manga fans. It's a plotting framework that actually has its roots in literature, and is used to describe stories that are highly realistic and relatively free of typical narrative structure-- rather than clear and obvious beginnings and climaxes, slice-of-life works paint brief, striking pictures of regular people just trying to survive. Stuffy literary types will cite Joyce's Ulysses as an example of this genre, but my favorite slice-of-life novel is by another Irishman, Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke, Ha ha ha. That's the story with how the term is used in literary circles-- but among lots of anime and manga fans, “slice-of-life” is used to describe everything from Azumanga Daioh (a sitcom) to Kids on the Slope (a conventional period drama). In my experience, very, very little anime that's deemed “slice of life” by fans actually conforms to the definition-- so Tatsumi's works are an exception, not part of a larger genre. What do you think?

I was talking about a movie, wasn't I? Eric Khoo's Tatsumi is rendered in a fairly curious style-- it's limited, super-flat flash animation. Visually, I guess you could compare it to t.o.L's Tamala 2010, though this is a much better movie than that one! Khoo's approach does suit the material-- at times, it really evokes Tatsumi's starkness and spareness, and turning a story like this over to a more typical dramatic anime director, like Gisaburō Sugii, might end up seeming kinda dumb or bland. The film mixes in bits adapted from Tatsumi's autobiography, narrated by the artist himself, with adaptations of his stories. This makes me happy, because my favorite story of his, Monkey, is present in the film. Let me break it down for you: a lonely factory worker has one companion, his pet monkey. But the monkey is listless and lonely too. After an accident renders the worker crippled and directionless, he tries to set his pet free, with disastrous results. Broke and alone in the city with waves of humanity surging around him, the man thinks of his doomed pet monkey, and screams in anguish.

Yeah, it's kind of breathtakingly sad and weird, but it's great storytelling! Actually, if you want a good intro to Tatsumi, check out Black Blizzard, his first full-length book that he developed for those rental bookstores. It's a very peculiar, ruthless little crime story, as an incarcerated man is caught up with an apparent hardened crook using a winter storm to flee the authorities; he slowly discovers his companion's strange circumstances, even as he's forced to confront his own terrible mistakes. It has Tatsumi's trademark style, which is rude, stark, ugly, and really compelling, and it's pretty cheap these days-- Amazon's got it for eight bucks. If you're not sold on it, the tantalizingly vivid, high-color glimpse of it in Khoo's Tatsumi just might tempt you.

But Khoo's movie isn't perfect, which might explain why I've only occasionally heard about it since its release in 2011. There's some pretty dodgy voicework from the actors, who were coached during production by Tatsumi in how to deliver a 1950s-era Osaka accent (it apparently involves appending every single statement with “-ya”). The flat, limited animation sometimes hurts more than it helps-- though it does bring to mind another, much older neat-o gekiga film adaptation, Nagisa Oshima's Tales of the Ninja. While Tatsumi herks and jerks, though, Tales of the Ninja is almost completely static-- literally a dramatic reading of Sanpei Shirato's original comics, using little but comic panels for imagery, only with some boffo music and sound effects. (Check out the trailer!)

Now that you've got a taste of what gekiga was (and is!), what's out there to read? Fortunately, the critical acclaim of Tatsumi's English reprints (lots of comics fans I know seem to like his stuff, but curiously, I've not met many anime and manga fans who do-- which is part of why I'm writing this) have led to something of a mini-boom in gekiga and other older manga. You can get multiple volumes of great old works by Shigeru Mizuki, for example, like his wry anti-war epic Onward to our Noble Deaths and the forthcoming release of his famous Kitaro, the basis of anime horror-comedy staple Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro. Vertical have released several seminal Osamu Tezuka works widely considered to be great examples of gekiga, like Message to Adolf and Ode to Kirihito. PictureBox is releasing an entire line of “ten cent manga,” stuff right from the shelves of those dusty old book rental shops in Osaka, starting with Shigeru Sugiura's Last of the Mohicans - another book I'm stoked to read! And amazingly, we've got a huge chunk of Tatsumi's works available in English, and it's pretty neat to see them realized in animated form in Tatsumi.

Tatsumi, with its basis in the artist's autobiographical A Drifting Life, sums up just what that title means when the artist ruminates on his early meetings with Osamu Tezuka. As he sat breathlessly in the famed artist's studio, he slowly realized that he became a manga artist to meet Tezuka. It's pretty awesome to think that Tatsumi, with his push for realism and more challenging stories, ended up influencing his idol in turn. Overall, though, Tatsumi is not truly a great movie—the animation doesn't quite make that leap, and while Khoo's telling of Monkey is fantastic, his recounting of other famous Tatsumi tales, such as Good-Bye, isn't. But it's better than decent, and ultimately, it's an effective introduction to manga that more of you should be reading. At his absolute best, Tatsumi is smarter than Naoki Urasawa, sweeter than Natsuki Takaya, sadder than Saki Hiwatari, funnier than Akira Toriyama, and more crazily real than Kazuo Koike.
Well, what manga have you been reading? What do you think of Tatsumi's works, and that of his peers, as English-speaking fans slowly learn more and more about the world of gekiga? Sound off in the comments!

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