Singapore's track record with animation has been admirable but poor, with the earliest foray being production houses plunging headlong thinking computer generated graphics was the way to go, undoubtedly fueled by Pixar's success with the medium. But what was keenly forgotten, was that story remained king, which films like Zodiac: The Race Begins, Legend of the Sea and surprisingly Sing to the Dawn, based upon an acclaimed book, all failed to come out with narratives to engage, passing off as really childish attempts with laughable artwork that paled in comparison to what it wanted to emulate.
I suppose if Eric Khoo had opened the doors for the Singapore film community once before in generating buzz in the earlier days of our film renaissance (if I can call it that), then he's clearly doing that again by showing that animated films can be done by Singapore production teams, if done properly. Some may quibble with the fact that Tatsumi is an animated film done by animators who are largely based offshore, but I'd say to give credit when credit is due, especially when there's a significant, marked improvement from their animated film, without a doubt having found a project comfortable enough to play to the strengths of a small team.
You would have known the background to how this film came about already, from the various press releases, interviews and articles ever since the film was slated to make its world premiere in Cannes earlier this year. In what would be a tribute to one of his idols, Eric Khoo had decided to venture into making not a live action film, but an animated one, adapting from the autobiography of Gekiga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi and his short stories, with the artist's blessings of course, and furthermore having to involve Tatsumi himself in providing additional inputs to bringing his creations to life on the big screen, especially helping to fill in the blanks behind where once were bubble speeches from his comic books, as well as imparting what would be key to the authenticity of the film - the keen eye for detail, so much so that this film is truly Japanese in spirit.
For those uninitiated with Tatsumi's works, then this film will serve as that quick start guide to his visual style and the stories that he's told through the graphic medium, and in many ways you'd see why they are so appealing to filmmaker Eric Khoo, drawing (pardon the unintentional pun) parallels with the filmmaker and the artist since the former was also once a cartoonist himself, and the darker content, more adult tales that Tatsumi draws about. In some ways the narrative structure is similar to Khoo's earlier film Be With Me, where it tells the biographical tale of a remarkable individual, interspersed between other stories. Here the film adapts from Tatsumi's autobiographical manga A Drifting Life, an astounding 800+ pages worth that chronicles the artist's struggles and inspiration.
One can imagine the sheer effort it took to condense that amount of material spanning decades of the master's life up (it was mentioned that he's working on the next volume that will culminate in his attendance at Cannes this year for the film's opening), and clearly that arc forms the core that engages, especially for anyone wanting to know more about the artist himself since major milestones are covered. But the short stories - Hell, Beloved Monkey, Just a Man, Good-Bye and Occupied - all provided that glimpse into the type of tales his art accompanied that he had pioneered, suited more for the adult with its darker tones and themes, graphic in nature too. And kudos to the director in knowing just when to make the transition between biography, and short story, at moments most apt that do not seem too jarring, nor confusing.
The animation style, which looked a lot like simple cut out animation, played to the production house's strengths, where things are kept simple based on the artistry of Tatsumi himself, therefore having his books serving as natural storyboards, with the obvious understanding that the look and feel of the film cannot and should not venture too far that it doesn't look like what had been designed by its creator. It's a limitation and constraint that worked wonders for Infinite Frameworks Studios, and should go about exorcising the demons from its earlier animated film effort.
Personally I would have loved to see more of Tatsumi's struggles in this movie, but the best way to do that is to go back to the source material. Hopefully this animated film will pique your interest in the master artist and his works, and if this film helps the casual viewer to pick up any of Tatsumi's books, and from there turn some into fans, then this film homage would have successfully done its job. Recommended! And yes do pick up the book as well!