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Manga: it's not just for kids anymore

Documentary spotlights renowned Japanese artist who has told stories brimming with adult themes

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If your notion of Japanese "manga" comics conjures the apocalyptic teen fantasies found in most western bookstores, this portrait of revered artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi should successfully rock that perception.

Tatsumi, now 76, came of age in postwar Japan with an impulse to draw comics, following in the footsteps of his infirm older brother. That urge transformed over a long career into telling stories anchored firmly in the oft-bitter realities of Japanese life.

Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo chooses to tell Tatsumi's story in the medium of animation, cross-cutting chapters of the author's autobiography, A Drifting Life, with a few of his selected short stories.

And what stories they are:

A disillusioned factory worker loses his job -- and an arm -- and takes the tragic step of attempting to free his pet monkey.

A lonely office manager near retirement is given the opportunity to cheat on his wife.

A bitter, outcast prostitute in postwar Japan has a devastating confrontation with her shamed drunken father.

A failed manga artist becomes obsessed with the pornographic graffiti he finds in a public washroom.

A photographer of the devastation at Hiroshima is driven to murder when one of his presumed-dead photo subjects turns up alive and eager to sully his own erroneously created image of saintly benevolence.

Manga, a term used to describe Japanese comic books for younger readers, proved to be an albatross around the necks of more serious artists, particularly for Tatsumi. (Imagine the indignity Raymond Carver might have felt being placed in the same literary corral as Stephenie Meyer.)

So Tatsumi himself coined the term "Gekiga" as a kind of manifesto to distinguish more serious, adult-oriented material, akin to the divide between comic books and the rise of graphic novels here in the western world.

Khoo's film may not look like a conventional documentary, but it functions to illuminate the junction of a pop medium with high art.

If the film feels less satisfactory as a critical biography, it is not necessarily because Khoo is inclined to skimp on the details of Tatsumi's life, but because he allows for the enduring mystery between life and art.

Other voices

If the structure sometimes disrupts the story of his life, the strong lines and melancholy sensibility of the illustration form an anchor that keep the power of Tatsumi's work firmly in view.

-- Michelle Orange, Village Voice


Exploring subjects from post-Hiroshima guilt to a sinister simian alter ego, their thematic daring and imaginative fizz are served well by the detailed, author-approved visuals, yet the tension sags every time we return to the comparatively mundane real-life element -- and the movie plateaus when it should build.

-- Trevor Johnston, Time Out

A eye-popping visual treat and a journey into the creative spirit.

-- David Hughes, Empire Magazine

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2013 c3


Updated on Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 9:45 AM CDT: adds fact box

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