In his epic five hundred plus page manga autobiography A Drifting Life , Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the godfather of alternative manga(*1), talked about the profound influence cinema had on the stories he came to create, so it seems appropriate that his life and his stories should be made into an animated film.
Directed by lifelong manga and indeed Tatsumi fan Eric Khoo, the film treats the comic text, and the visual style of Tatsumi, as sacred, and the animators have gone to great lengths to make you aware that these animations are based first and foremost on ink drawings done on paper. Everything from the crosshatching, the monochrome shading, and he dotted printing effects of his first full length work Black Blizzard, are all lovingly recreated here. Not only this but the animation is deliberately rough in places, as Khoo wanted to be as faithful to the experience of reading these stories on the page as possible, which is why the movements and expressions are perhaps much more limited then your average animation, to good effect.
While colour is added to the events that happen in Tatsumi's real life, his fictional stories that are interspersed within the overall narrative are distinguished through the recreation of their colour schemes. So we get a mixture of moody purples and yellows, sepia tones, and black and whites. The general feel of these stories I could describe as being the manga equivalent of film noir. Some of the stories even incorporate deliberate cracks of age and haze around the images to add to the atmosphere.
The visual mood of course perfectly mirrors the overarching sense of doom in the stories, and like in film noir we are presented with the seedy underbelly of a supposedly affluent society. Like the 1950's crime comics we are treated to sordid sex and perversions, violence, and an easy escape at the bottom of a bottle. But one thing that Tatsumi has over those EC artists and writers is a heightened level of intelligence.
His plots have clever little twists that seem surreal but that also make perfect sense. He really seems to get at the absurdity of life and maybe it would be hyperbole to liken him to existentialist writers such as Sartre, Knut Hamsun, Jean Genet, etc. Even though his stories are short and sharp (and quite often bitter) on the screen they come across as having qualities of merit, this is indeed literature (in hushed tones).
These stories were formed out of a personal bitterness that Tatsumi himself reflects on in the film (it his own voice that narrates the events of his life). Post-War Japan finally brought itself out of hardship and started to experience economic growth, a growth that Tatsumi felt personally that he and thousand others like him, were not entitled to. Tatsumi tells us that he 'vomited out' these frustrations in his stories. Bleak allegorical tales about the dull thud of progress and modernity in an increasingly overpopulated world where no one communicates face to face must seem pretty prophetic when we look back on them now. But these were written and drawn mostly in the seventies!
The additional layer of sound is also a very important one. In the story Beloved Monkey, we are immersed in the maddening noise of the factory, we feel it thudding around us even as our hero leaves the factory out onto the sickeningly overcrowded streets of Tokyo. The moronic and slightly idiotic voice of the American G.I in 'Goodbye', all these details suspend our disbelief that this 2D world of paper figures is anything less than real life.
The one thing this film could not do sadly was capture the great width and breadth of Tatsumi'sautobiography, but on reflection I realised this was not such a bad thing after all. I thought originally that this film showed a rare example of the limitations of animation but I think I was probably suffering from the old 'read the book before I saw the film' tunnel vision. I wasdisappointed by the omitting of huge chunks of his life story (although starting with the books ending, and the death of Sensie Tezuka, was a nice touch) but realised considering the pacing of this film was a tad on the slow side at times, this mammoth tale was probably best kept between the pages of a book. With 'A Drifting Life' you could dip in and out whenever you liked, and it was easy to pick up. At around about two hours in length, putting anything else in might have stretched it to bursting, and certainly a film consisting only of his life events might have been a bit boring. Intersecting his fiction into the film became a key device in the plot anyway, by helping to explain a lot of Tatsumi's own mentality when it came to life and manga.
Tatsumi is a master storyteller, a master of his craft, and upon reflection Eric Khoo has done him proud and hopefully opened up a whole new audience to his work.
(*1) Or as he and his colleagues came to christen it 'gekiga' (meaning 'dramatic pictures')