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Andrew Osmond on the real “adult” manga

The animated Tatsumi (available on British DVD from Soda) is a true curio. It was made in Singapore in tribute to a Japanese comic artist, who was drawing grown-up picture stories decades before Death Note. Tatsumi is not an anime film, nor an imitation of anime; rather, it offers an alternative interpretation of Japanese media.

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Tatsumi is fascinating, not just as an insight into manga’s early history, but as a demonstration of parallel evolution. As most readers of this blog will know, the first postwar comic-strip star was Osamu Tezuka, the creator of characters including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. But then in the 1960s, a generation of artists emerged who’d grown up as kids on Tezuka’s strips, and had adored them, but who wanted to stretch comics into more adult territory, using them to comment on contemporary life.

Much the same thing was also happening in America in the 1960s, with the rise of America’s “comix” movement – independent, adult, anti-establishment comics, popularised by their most famous artist, Robert Crumb. The fascinating thing, though (at least according to Tatsumi director Eric Khoo when I asked him) is that there was no cause and effect between America and Japan. The ‘60s Japanese artists weren’t influenced by Crumb or comix, though they did have to contend with the prevailing Japanese attitude that comics were for kids. (Yes, this was a long time ago.)

The artists’ response was to call their comics by a new name; not comix, but “gekiga,” meaning “dramatic pictures.” In the Tatsumi film, there’s a scene with the characters trying out different names for size, before crossing out each in turn.

The film focuses on one of the founders of gekiga, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who died on 7th March. The framing story is Tatsumi’s account of his life and development, growing up with a difficult family. He had none of the technology and luxuries that we take for granted, no reason to think he could ever make a living from the fledgling manga industry. And yet he was utterly driven to draw comics, like his hero Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka himself makes a guest appearance in Tatsumi’s story, in a charming if superficial account of how the wide-eyed boy met the God of Manga.

Into Tatsumi’s life are woven five stories from his strips. Really, it’s these that make the film work. The animation is mostly functional and rudimentary, but that doesn’t matter. What registers, as in many comics, are the linework and atmosphere: the black streaks of contaminated rain over Hiroshima after the A-bomb, the masses pushing onto a crammed Tokyo train, the shifts between black-and-white and more lurid hues.

In the first story, a young reporter is poking round the ruins of Hiroshima when he makes a shocking discovery, literally burned into a wall. This is the strongest tale, told in the manner of film noir. Elsewhere, a factory drone worker is unhinged by the pressures of the city, with only his pet monkey to console him – it won’t last! A bitter office worker nearing retirement plans a last glorious fling with a pretty female colleague. A cast-off manga artist becomes unhealthily obsessed with the pervy graffiti he finds in public toilets.

There are no Fritz the Cat subversive funny animals, nor saucer-eyed schoolkids. Tatsumi is writing for grown-ups, venting adult life’s frustrations like a stand-up comedian. The most frequent themes are failure and impotence, both physical and social. There’s a self-conscious interest in smut (most obviously in the toilet story) but no smutty wish-fulfilment. The sex always goes horribly wrong, and not in funny ways. Like Robert Crumb’s work, Tatsumi is a male vision, with no serious effort to explore female emotions, though the cynicism and sordidness extend to both genders equally.

The framing story is far more frustrating, a sketchy account of Tatsumi’s development with a few sweet scenes (especially the lad’s first adult initiation by a lady) and lots of misplaced sentimentality. Why was Tatsumi motivated to draw such dark adult manga? We get the fleeting suggestion that he was angered by the inequities of his time, and that’s it. As an introduction to Tatsumi’s art, this fresh, bracing film does the job well. But it still leaves you feeling you’ve only scratched the surface of this great, late artist.

Tatsumi is available on UK DVD.

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