By Hemanth Kissoon
Singapore’s foreign language entry for the 2012 Oscars is an animated film. Unless you’re Studio Ghibli or Pixar, you’ve got to be pretty confident that you have something special to be the pinnacle of your country’s filmmaking (politics of nominating aside). What director Eric Khoo has done is adapt the work of titular manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi into five vignettes. The material is not of the Mickey Mouse variety; think Robert Crumb-like musings (without the fetish) mixed with some of the weight of GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (though not as devastating). It is adult then, and while watching the film poses thought-provoking questions (without really answering them). The movie is weirdly quite forgettable – I’m not sure why, because at the time I was engaged – and otherwise would have got a higher score.
The first segment, entitled ‘Hell’, concerns the aftermath of the Second World War; specifically the use of nuclear weapons, causing black rain and the light burning so bright it imprinted people’s shadows on walls and steps. The animation is simple and effective, and characterful. The story is about a misunderstood photo that triggers blackmail and more death. Tatsumi was only 10 years old in 1945, so it is perhaps hard to imagine what exact impact that crisis for Japan must have had on him. There are four other narratives that are shown to us, while we are given seeming biographical detail about the storytelling artist’s life. There is an element of AMERICAN SPLENDOUR to the film (without all the meta levels, though there is manga within manga). These vignettes, entitled ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’, ‘Good-Bye’ and ‘Just a Man’, share an at times deep melancholy about human nature. Refreshingly there is no clear moral, which forces involvement to attempt to discern if there is a meaning to what is being told us. My initial reaction was being impressed by an animated biopic that eschews emotional catharsis, and instead seems to seek something more interesting. However, TATSUMI doesn’t stick around long enough in the memory.