Tatsumi is a potent collection of animated shorts

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Featuring the voice of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. In Japanese with English subtitles. Unrated. Opens Friday, November 16, at the Vancity Theatre

The most powerful feeling one gets from this potent collection of animated shorts is the sense of what it was like to be a child in Japan after the Second World War.

The Osaka-born Yoshihiro Tatsumi started out, as with most cartoonists, with simple line drawings aimed at children. But his work grew darker and more personal, into an adult-minded manga style dubbed gekiga. Many of the tales presented in Tatsumi were drawn—or “vomited out”, as the artist puts it in his own, kind-voiced narration—in the 1970s, when his country was experiencing a phoenixlike boom that mostly seemed to make him think of ashes.

Directed by Singaporean Eric Khoo (best remembered for his 1996 Mee Pok Man) and assembled by a multinational crew, the film takes material from Tatsumi’s recent memoir, A Drifting Life. Seen in bright, cheerful colours, there are childhood struggles with an alcoholic, ne’er-do-well dad, encounters with manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka, and recurring bad-health spells brought on by overwork. These inform the more fictional tales with which they are interspersed. Rendered in a kind of burnt-sepia monochrome, the tales include visits with a hardened prostitute and her childlike father, still in army uniform during the American occupation; an artist discovering his inner toilet-wall pornographer; and, most harrowingly, an army photographer whose Hiroshima photo never stops causing trouble.

The only problem with this approach is that there’s a sameness to the tone and presentation. The characters here are always bursting into tears, sweat, or both (not counting booze, bathwater, and semen), and this general sogginess is underlined by a relentlessly sentimental piano score. Japanese pop culture has a notably high tolerance for emotional dissonance, of course, and Tatsumi manages to cram a lot into its cartoon stew.


Watch the trailer for Tatsumi.

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