Get ready for something different from 45-year-old film maestro Eric Khoo. Having made his name with dramas like Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys, Be with Me, his latest work is a Japanese animation that pays homage to the life and works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the godfather of alt-anime.
A lesser-known fact about Khoo’s career is that he was a comic artist before he became a filmmaker. ‘When I was in the army I used to draw comics for The Sunday Times. I had a character called Condom Boy, and Times Publishing [now Marshall Cavendish] approached me and asked me to create a graphic novel with short stories. I only had three months to do it and was stuck for ideas. So a friend of mine passed me Tatsumi’s graphic novel Goodbye and Other Stories. It totally blew me away. There was just something so dark and sad and beautiful in this guy’s work. And I was so inspired it took me only weeks to come up with my graphic novel.’ Making Tatsumi now, then, is Khoo coming full circle.
Born in Osaka in 1935, legendary graphic novelist Tatsumi is one of the key pioneers of Japanese comic artistry. He’s revered for creating a style of comics in postwar Japan called gekiga, a darker, grittier cousin to the fantasy-obsessed manga style that engaged with the social issues of the day: the effects of the atomic bomb, urban alienation, poverty, broken families and the soullessness of everyday Japanese life.
Last year, at the age of 75, Tatsumi published his autobiography. A Drifting Life is an 840-page graphic novel, depicting his life from the age of ten growing up in postwar Japan, to 1960, when he was at the acme of his artistic career. Khoo, who was already familiar with Tatsumi’s earlier works, was floored by this tome. ‘It was just so inspirational to read this man’s autobiography,’ Khoo says. ‘The last page shows him at the age of 74, looking kinda grumpy. I saw his face and thought, this guy is still alive, and he’s an important pillar of Japanese comics who started this whole movement – I have to pay tribute.’
But how did Khoo get approval from such a titan in the Japanese comic industry? ‘I went to Japan in October last year and met Tatsumi. He’d seen my films and liked my characters. When he saw I could draw – I had illustrated how I envisaged the film – he felt comfortable with me as an artist. After three to four hours in a coffeeshop, he gave me his blessing – he said, “Make my film!”’
For a first venture into animation, the production of Tatsumi is going smoothly. Working with Infinate Frameworks Studios, a team of animators in Batam, Khoo has finished nearly a quarter of the animation. ‘We only started the animatics around March and we’ve moved quickly in a short space of time. From the hundreds of pages of Tatsumi’s life we had to extract everything and have maybe 30 minutes of footage. On top of that we are intercutting his life story with some of his short stories. I want to give his short stories more life – they will move, they will breathe, there will be music, there will be sound – so they will be better than the comic.’
The animation will be true to Tatsumi’s original work. ‘It’s his style,’ Khoo says. ‘I told the animators, “Don’t even try and do a new storyboard. Take his panels and his framings, and work from them.” You see, Tatsumi loves cinema, and when he created this new movement of comics using strips with real characters, rather than the four-panel manga convention, he produced works that are like storyboards for a film. All we need to do is stretch them out to a widescreen format. And give them multi-planes, like layers, so there is more depth and feel. I also tweaked certain things, changed some of the sequences of the stories, so for the cinema his stories got a new voice.’
Fans of this genre can also expect to hear a cameo of Tatsumi himself. ‘We recorded his voice so the whole narrative is his voice over,’ Khoo explains further. In doing so, Tatsumi’s Osakan dialect – spoken widely during his era but rare even among Osakanese today – is preserved, and the accuracy of the film maintained. Which is a big deal for Khoo. ‘I really want Japanese audiences to feel it’s real…I want all the details to be correct. I want the colours of a train in the 1950s, for instance, to be accurate. So Tatsumi will be watching what we do to help ensure that.’
With such painstaking authenticity, Japanese audiences should be pleased. And they might well get to watch the film in Japan, although it’s unclear where exactly the film will be distributed – the plan is to release the film in Singapore and seek bigger audiences abroad. ‘We’re talking to a very important sales agent based in Europe. Their movie won the Palme d’Or this year [the Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives], and they have a lot of cutting edge movies. So once they take Tatsumi on, we’ll see how they sell it and which festivals they decide to push it to. Japan, Taiwan and Korea naturally have a bigger appetite for anime than Singapore, so maybe we will target those markets for Tatsumi.’
While box-office success and critical acclaim matter for sure, it is the real Tatsumi’s appreciation that counts for the most to Khoo. ‘Ultimately I want Tatsumi to be very happy with the film,’ he says. ‘He had a big impact on me. A lot of my early short films were inspired by his short stories all those years ago. So this is like a present to him. He is such a beautiful man. I really want this film to work for him. He is a real gem.’
A work in progress, Tatsumi is expected to be completed by the end of March 2011.
This story first appeared as 'Life in cartoon motion' in TOS (Dec 2010)