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Yoshihiro Tatsumi:

The Man, The Manga, The Movie


The UK poster for the movie, Tatsumi

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the ‘sensei’ or grand master of ‘gekiga’, a term he coined for the darker, more dramatic form of manga in Japan. I was honoured to meet Tatsumi when he was a guest at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, with his agent, AX editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa, shortly after my book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics was published in 2004. I devoted a whole chapter to gekiga and highlighted Tatsumi’s pivotal role and mastery of graphic narrative. In person, Tatsumi was friendly, reserved, modest and grateful for the appreciation of his work.

Five of his emotionally wrenching short stories - ‘Hell’, ‘Just A Man’, ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’, and ‘Good-Bye’ - have now been adapted directly from his drawings into a new animated feature film directed by the Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo. Tatsumi the movie premiered at Cannes last May, where a special Charity Gala Premiere raised funds for the relief efforts in Japan. It has gone on to win awards including Best Animated Film at the Sitges Festival in Spain and Best Film at the Dubai International Film Festival, where Eric’s 13 year-old son Christopher also won Best Composer for the movie’s score. Tatsumi opens in the UK on January 13th. Tatsumi is directed by the Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo, who skilfully interweaves the five tales into Tatsumi’s own life stories, as recounted in part in his acclaimed manga memoir, A Drifting Life.


Eric Khoo (L) & Yoshihiro Tatsumi (R) at Cannes 2011

I found the Tatsumi film immensely moving and especially inspiring for allowing us to get to know the man behind the manga and to appreciate what drives someone to devote themselves to their life’s dream of making powerful stories in their own unique way. For all its great voice acting, movement, colour and musical soundtrack, what the film finally proves is the secret power of comics. How one person, with pens or pixels, can make a reader react so emotionally to something as ‘simple’ as still, silent drawings and words on a page.

I had first met Eric Khoo, a man as passionate about comics as he is about movies, in fact a graphic novelist himself, last summer in London. Here’s the conversation I had with him when we caught up again in London on December 19th, ahead of a press preview screening. Check out the online UK trailer, and don’t miss the chance to see this film on the big screen and to (re-)discover Tatsumi’s manga, available in English from Drawn & Quarterly, with three volumes reissued in paperback next April.

Paul Gravett:
I was hoping Comica Festival and your distributor Soda Pictures could bring Yoshihiro Tatsumi to London, as he had accepted an invitation to the Turnhout Strip Festival in Belgium earlier in December. But sadly he was not well enough to travel.

Eric Khoo:
Yes, he had to go to the hospital, he’s getting old, he’ll be 77 this year.

And he’s still working. I found one of the great things about your movie is how Tatsumi’s powerful stories and his own life story show us that this is a real person.

Yes, to show Tatsumi is a real man was in my mind already, the first time I told him that this is where I want it to go in the movie, and he said ok, that sounds alright.

You haven’t adapted the whole of his life story from A Drifting Life?

No, it’s fascinating but at 800 pages, that would take too long.

Instead, you’ve honed in on some of its most emotional aspects and moving moments, like the opening with Osamu Tezuka’s death in 1989.

A Drifting Life ends around the early Sixties and I wanted the movie to go all the way through to the present day, so the introduction of his wife and other later events, those are new illustrations he did specially for the film. He is working on a sequel to A Drifting Life, due out in April. It’s 400 pages and comes up to date. And I think he wants to end it with him at the Cannes Film Festival.

Does Tatsumi have any assistants?

No, it’s all him. He’s had a few in his life, but he just couldn’t stand them.  He is more of an artist. It was wonderful, when we went to Tokyo, the crowds just embraced him. He’s not on the level of someone like Tezuka but he is getting more recognition. With A Drifting Life, he’s won awards like the Tezuka Award. It’s almost like a renaissance for him. When I first met him, he goes, ‘Why do you want to make a film about a dinosaur?!’ In Japan, to be honest, there are just so many manga coming out, every year like a million new titles. And of course you’ve got Shigeru Mizuki, the guy with one arm who lost the other in the Pacific War [see Onward Towards Our Glorious Deaths from Drawn & Quarterly). Mizuki is a legend, with his own television programme. When his wife produced that, he just came back and became prominent again in a big way. And of course Tezuka is huge. Younger readers of Japanese comics know about Astro Boy, but they don’t really know about Tezuka, with all the new comic artists coming out.

For sensei, it was really good because, when they premiered Tatsumi in Tokyo, there were younger audiences. Seeing his friend from the Fifties, Golgo 13 artist Takao Saito, again was like a homecoming for Tatsumi. As we speak, we still haven’t inked the deal with Japan, though we’ve sorted it with Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea. We have to work out what’s best for the film there. Japan is a very important market for it, and it’s not your usual anime movie. It’s more like manga comes to life - or gekiga comes to life!

I’ve spoken with one film critic who had to adjust when watching the film, as this is not what he expected, it’s a not motion comics and it’s not your usual style of anime.

We didn’t want that. And also I kept on telling the animators I tried that we have to ensure that the look and the feel are exactly the way Tatsumi had drawn the panels in his manga. I didn’t want to come up with another storyboard. We’ll take his stories, we will not include any additional panels, but we could edit some away and use movement and sequence. I didn’t want it to be very smooth, because if it’s too smooth, it will go against the drawings. The prepping that the animation team headed by Phil Mitchell did was a good three to four months of getting the look right. All the drawings were hand drawn, they were scanned in computer so you got all these artists who could draw a Tatsumi comic and you’d never know the difference! What we also noticed in a lot of the Tatsumi panels is that they are pretty small, and sometimes you don’t have the information, like a background, so we had to change that for the big screen. A lot of the multi-layers that we did, foregrounds, backgrounds, all that was actually done by the young studio boys.


A scene from A Drifting Life put into full colour

I wanted the parts from A Drifting Life to be in full colour so you could separate it. That book is black and white so what colour was the train back then? You have to be true to the period. The layout of tatami mats on the floors, for example, what was it actually like, because you’re extending the comic to the scale of a three-storey screen. I wanted it to be as correct as possible, because we are not Japanese.

We wanted to be accurate even with the voices. We know what a fan of Tezuka that Tatsumi is, so we found this guy with an Osakanese accent and Tatsumi was ok with that. But he started grumbling about his mother’s voice, saying ‘This woman does not sound like my mother.’ So we found someone suitable. The person we’d found didn’t have enough of that Osaka twang. So finally he was happy. We didn’t show him the entire film, just bits and pieces. I didn’t want him to get a heart attack when he saw the final product! We needed to get the Osakanese to sound the way it did in the Fifties. So there was an older gentleman who coached the younger actors. He had lived about half an hour away form where sensei had lived in the Fifties. Back then, even the pronunciation is different from now. Fortunately my sound desginer is the only Japanese sound designer in the whole of Singapore!

And we were lucky enough to get this guy called Tetsuya Bessho who is a very famous theatre actor in Japan, he does Les Miserables and all that, so he could project his voice. He’s also very much into film and has his own short film festival, and his own radio show in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo. Bessho liked the Tatsumi material so he said ‘I’ll come by, do you guys a favour.’ His show is on five days a week and he had the afternoons on Friday free after his recording, so he came in Fridays for a meal and the next morning, Saturday, we recorded his voice, and Sunday a bit more and he left Sunday afternoon for Monday morning’s show. In a day and a half he’d do six or seven voices. He did both voices in ‘Hell’. It was amazing. We don’t have a lot of facial movements or expressions in the animation, so a strong voice is very important. Monkey was my favourite actually.


The heart-breaking farewell to Beloved Monkey

In that story, you keep expecting something awful to happen with that monkey, like it’s going to suddenly go wild. In fact, all the stories get pretty dark, which may surprise some filmgoers not used to adult manga. How did you choose which ones to adapt and what order to put them in?

I made two of them like bookends, opening with ‘Hell’ just after World War II, and then putting Goodbye at the end, with his own life stories to flow in between. So, for example, with his first sexual awakening, where we cut to the old retired man who can’t get it up any more.

You make links between the stories and his life.

Yes, Tatsumi was always wondering how we were going to connect them. I thought we should do it in a seamless way, and for the audience I think initially you’re not very sure where it’s going. But it’s a chance to discover, that’s what I wanted, and by the end they will know what it’s all about. The film has done well. In Torino it’s up for best documentary and in Dubai it won as best film. It can fit into a lot of different categories. You could have the individual stories made into short standalone films, but Tatsumi said if you put all my short stories together, people after they watch the film are going to want to commit suicide! Yeah, they are bleak. I told him that’s why we need to intercut them with your life story, to give hope and at the end I want the audience to see you.

You also give each story a very distinctive look.


A scene from Just A Man

Yeah, I was looking at how the old manga were printed and I loved the way they shift into that one colour, the different tones. It’s so beautiful. That was their cheaper way to have colour in comics without full colour. We used the blues for ‘Just A Man’ and multi-orange for ‘Occupied’. I was going through the originals of his first graphic novel, Black Blizzard with those blues and purples…

You showed the opening colour sequence from that breakthrough book and I wondered if you were about to narrate the whole story?

Initially, I wasn’t going to animate Black Blizzard at all. I thought this part is going to be static, but then the animators loved the images so much and when they animated it and I saw it, I knew we gotta use it!

And in adapting A Drfiting Life, you’ve crystalised some of the key dilemmas he faced, such as the jealousy of his brother.

Yes, that was important. I was photocopying the book’s pages and cutting out the panels and seeing, does it work? I wanted it to be in sequence, turning his stories into storyboards. And initally I was going to put in that whole section about his love for cinema, and also about his tutor. But it was just too much information. Actually, I had chosen six of his short stories initially, including ‘Abandon the Old’ which was a very good story, but it would be close to two hours and that’s just impossible. It’s already running close to 100 minutes. And I found ‘Abandon the Old’ a bit similar to ‘Beloved Monkey’, so I chose it of the two and to have enough contrast. There were a lot of other stories that were playing in my mind, like ‘Test Tube’, ‘Sewer’, and other stories he did in the late Sixties. But in the end we just took the stories from the early Seventies. And he was happy with the selection.


The sexually bleak post-War drama Good-Bye

In terms of his making the new material in the film, was Tatsumi already working on the sequel to A Drifting Life?

No, for the post-Fifties scenes to today, I developed panels which I emailed to him and said ‘Give us your thoughts’. From this we got him narrating what he felt during that period. His reflections of life. It could be more intimate because with every voiceover you zero right into the heart. All that text he came up with just before he came to Singapore. When he arrived, the first thing I had to do was to get him to give me all his voiceover. So with that we had a structure. And it’s his voice in the film. When he saw the film in Cannes, he freaked out. He thought his voice was purely a guide and we’d get somebody else to do it. He’s a very shy man and he hates his voice.  But it works because it’s really him.

How do you feel about releasing it in Japan?

The reaction at the three screenings we held in Tokyo has been so positive. I’m sure there will be a market there for the film. It’s just that it is so different from whatever they’ve seen before. And there’s a Japanese company that’s really worried about our including the Yasukuni shrine to the war dead and asking did you get permission. And what about that cannon? The cannon is no longer there, but they can be really difficult - these are are issues that have not come up anywhere else. The other concern is the content, which is very left-field,

Why do you think Tatsumi was one of the first mangaka to get translated in the West (notably in the early Eighties in the underground Spanish magazine El Vibora), ahead of Tezuka?

Yes, I’ve read some Tezuka books and they’re imaginative and very good but they have that fantastical element to them. Tatsumi’s stories are almost like a Charles Bukowski, they are really hardhitting, I love them because they’re so original and unique. It’s easy to do a down-and-out story but harder to go beyond that. I discovered them in English. It was a Catalan Communications collection Good-Bye and Other Stories from 1988. When I read it, it totally blew me away. At the time I was doing comics and a major publisher in Singapore asked me to do a 100-page graphic novel. I was still in the army at that time. The problem was that they gave me three months to make it in time for the Book Fair. If I missed it for the Book Fair, I had to wait another year. I was reading Harvey Pekar, all the indies, Chester Brown, Peepshow, but nothing inspired me. And this friend passed me Good-Bye and I read it and thought, ‘My God, he’s a genius!’ I was so inspired, I came up with all these stories in maybe two weeks and I illustrated them in about a month and I made it in time for the Book Fair. And eventually, in 2005, Drawn & Quarterly started to release his other stories, edited by Adrian Tomine.


Tatsumi meets Adrian Tomine in Tokyo

When I picked up A Drifting Life, I thought it was more compilation stories, and when I finally read it, I found it was his whole life. I was struck that this young boy, that’s all he had, his ability to draw and tell stories. We’ve spoken many times and if he didn’t have that gift, he’d just be making soap or some horrible life. In a way, he is happy though that he had the ability, but in a way he’s had a tortured life as well. There’s something very melancholic about the guy. He told me when he walked up the red carpet at Cannes, he felt, did he deserve it? What has he done? He is very unassuming. A really beautiful soul. Hopefully he’s got another idea in mind for a fictional comic. It deals with the afterlife. I think a lot of things are going through his mind because he is getting old.

By Japanese standards he is not all that old.

No, but the sad thing is, of the Boys from those Fifties gekiga days, only three of them are left of the original gang of seven, including Takao Saito. It was almost like being in a rock band, an exciting time for them. The good thing is that people are looking back at these older cartoonists, maybe to release more stuff from the past.

Has Tatsumi had anything adapted into a live action film?

No. At one point ‘Hell’ was going to be adapted into a movie with Takeshi Beat Kitano as the lead. It was optioned but it never took off.
Tatsumi said that after he visited the actual museum in Hiroshima and saw the casualties, he doubted very much whether he would have done that story. He felt kind of bad. At that time, the Japanese edition of Playboy magazine commissioned him to do something. A lot of these stories were parts of book compilations and short story anthologies. ‘Occupied’ was done for a sort of fanzine or small press compilation, it was very underground back then.

Does he have any regrets that he never came up with something best-selling like Saito’s long-running assassin, Golgo 13?

He would have maybe liked that but it didn’t happen. Tatsumi has actually done so many different types of comics. There was a series of 12 volumes about a boy who was raised by rats which is quite explicit. Beautiful drawings, they don’t look like anything he did in the short stories that are more detailed and sophisticated. In Singapore, I have a friend who is wild about Tatsumi after watching the movie, and he asked, ‘Does he have any more stories?’ Tatsumi found these old stories, some of them are very strong, and they are going to be published in 2012 in Singapore, in English. I’d never seen them before. It was incredible, my producer showed me all those original pages from Tatsumi. The artwork is turning a bit yellow and you’ve got all these transparencies, this Scotch tape dried up, but it’s gorgeous work. I was scared to hold the pages!

They should be put in a Tatsumi exhibition?

That hasn’t happened yet. To market the Tatsumi film in Japan, we need to get an agency to think of new ways to advertise it, you need something special to create the awareness, maybe an exhibition, and get some of the younger artists, and actors and celebrities to endorse it. If we sign with Japan soon, we won’t release there till maybe the summer so there’s time to build a campaign. We’ve had these offers from smaller experimental theatres, but that might be a bit of waste and then just after two or three weeks it’s gone. So we have to think of something strong. The five stories in the film have already been recompiled into a Japanese book with really beautiful colour to tie in with the movie. It also has his thoughts about Cannes and it has his picture from the Cannes festival at the back. That book is more for the fans but maybe we could get some of the stories into some wider circulation magazines. We have yet to let Takeshi Kitano see the film. If we can sign with a distributor and Kitano could endorse the film, that would be fantastic.


Tatsumi at work, adapted from A Drifting Life

There are more stories not yet released in English. When I was in his office, I was going through all these beautiful editions from Europe. One that he found was about a robot, almost like a Hans Christian Anderson tale, a one-off. He passed to my friend thirteen stories and he’s going to translate ten of them. The stories are so full of humanity. Tatsumi is still working every day. He was always most interested in what is happening in the world. So even now, he tells me he doesn’t have time to read comics or books, because all he wants is to read the newspapers. So every morning, what he reads in the papers plays in his mind. Then he starts to sketch ideas and do his drawings for the rest of his day. Then early to bed, to do the same the next day.

Posted: January 8, 2012

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