As he closes in on 80 years of age, the Japanese comic artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a figure of near-iconic cultural respect in Japan, and the most impressive thing about Eric Khoo's fully animated movie about the artist, Tatsumi, is that it leaves no doubt as to why. Here is a man who not only pioneered the adult manga form called gekiga, but in the process chronicled Japan's convulsive postwar recovery with stark and sometimes harrowing clarity. Effectively, Tatsumi almost single-handedly ripped Japanese comic art from the realms of the childish and the pulpy.
Adapted selectively from the artist's sprawling 800-page graphic autobiography A Drifting Life, Khoo's movie employs a blend of computer-assisted animation of Tatsumi's black-and-white original artwork with fully animated colour episodes from Tatsumi's life. The result is a striking and largely apt juxtaposition of tone and style, if sometimes a little jolting: Where Tatsumi's manga stories tend toward the darkly existential – replete with sex, death and atomic fallout – his personal recollections are comparatively sweet and gentle. Western viewers might liken it to Disney meets The Dark Knight.
In his early life a passionate devotee of the anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, Tatsumi grew quickly frustrated by the prevailing attitude toward manga as pure kidstuff and forged a direction for the medium that at once honoured the master's simple style but infused it with certain grim realities of Japan's post-atomic reality. Indeed, Tatsumi's first story is about a photographer credited with taking an iconic memorial picture of a mother-and-child shadow left by the bombing of Hiroshima, a photo that turns out to be almost as treacherously and persistently toxic as the event that generated it. And so it proceeds: While the following stories may move literally from the shadow of the A-bomb, they never quite escape it.
As an introduction to the work of one of Japan's most bravely groundbreaking pop-cultural figures, Tatsumi is invaluable, especially in the context of this continent's comparatively belated appreciation of comics as a legit form of grown-up expression. As much the story of how history impressed itself on comic art as how one comic artist impressed himself on comic history, it's a movie that reminds us how vulnerable even the lowest forms of culture are to the pressures of growing up.
Tatsumi opens Friday for a limited run at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.