Yes, I'm still hacking my way through the backlog of Cannes interviews. Trier and Miike down, Beloved director Christophe Honoré is due for Monday (and then some longer interviews I did with the cast and director of one particular movie, which will surface sometime in the not too dim-and-distant). But today is the turn of Eric Khoo, the man behind animated anthology Tatsumi, which played in Un Certain Regard.
First time in Cannes, at the grand old age of 75, to see a movie not just based on his work but also his life, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi nodded off during the gala screening. Personally I blame Jean-Paul Belmondo. For it was the overrun of the ceremony to gift an honorary Palme d'Or to the Breathless star which ensured it was well past eleven by the time the lights dimmed in the Salle Debussy and the projector finally began to roll on Tatsumi. And given that Eric Khoo, director of said movie, admitted during our interview two days later that Tatsumi's preference is to be tucked up in bed by eight each night, the odds of him remaining awake throughout were perhaps small indeed.
What, then, did Yoshihiro Tatsumi, revered manga artist, pioneer of the 'gekiga' style of darker, more adult-oriented stories, and contemporary of Astro Boy creator Osama Tezuka, miss during his Cote d'Azur doze? Well, adaptations of five short stories he penned during the '70s – Hell (my favourite), Beloved Monkey (Tatsumi's own pick of those featured), Just a Man, Occupied and Good-Bye – as well as key snippets from his graphic novel autobiography, A Drifting Life – documenting his first love, the tension between him and his brother, his friendship-cum-rivalry with Tezuka.
The movie was made by Khoo in just eight months and on a relatively low budget, and the animation does prove quite simple and limited in terms of motion (Richard Williams will probably have a fit when he sees some of the walk cycles). On the other hand, the character designs and virtual storyboards provided via the source strips of the man himself are a visual treat, while the mini-narratives each come equipped with a killer twist.
Unlike much of the manga exported to the US and UK, the figures created by Tatsumi are distinctly Japanese – see the daughter of Just a Man or the snivelling father from Good-Bye – and they are recognisably empathetic in their actions too; as beastly as they often behave, a sliver of human truth always shines through. If the unifying biography strand of Khoo's film brings to mind American Splendor, then the stories themselves made me think of Charles Burns' discomfiting tales, such as Big Baby.
Tatsumi was made possible by the corralling of a range of talents. The animation was handled by Singapore and Indonesia-based firm Infinite Frameworks, some of the music was composed by Khoo's 13-year-old son Christopher, and Japanese actor Tetsuya Bessho provides many of the voices. Even Tatsumi himself got involved, delivering the narration for the sequences based on his own life.
But it was writer-director Eric Khoo who was the driving force for the project, and having exhibited twice previously in Cannes, with 2005's Be With Me and 2008's My Magic, it was a welcome return to the festival for the Singaporean filmmaker, albeit with a movie that represents an obvious formal departure from anything he has ever done previously. And it was with the subject of animation versus live-action where last Thursday's round-table interview began.
Questioner: Did you feel more free or less free doing animation?
Eric Khoo: I'm a very impatient person and that's why in my wildest dreams I never thought I'd ever do an animation film. Most of my live-action films take me anywhere from nine days to film to two-and-a-half weeks. But in the case of doing an animation film, it took forever. It's been a real learning curve for me, and it's been an incredible journey, but it's definitely my first and last animation film. I'm very, very happy with the results we managed to achieve with a very small team.
I had been a big, big fan of Yoshihiro Tatsumi because I used to do comics myself. I would draw for the newspaper. I created a little mascot for Action for AIDS – his name was Condom Boy [indeed, when I ask Eric to sign my Tatsumi press book at the end of the interview, he kindly draws a little Condom Boy on it for me. Aw]. And one day, when I was in my early twenties, a major book publisher in Singapore said “Look, Eric, why don't we come up with a graphic novel?”
At that time I was still serving in the army, because it's compulsory in Singapore that you join for national service, and I was out of ideas. I had to get it out in three months before this book fair. If not, I'd have to wait the whole year for the following year's book fair. And no matter what I was reading, I wasn't inspired. Then a friend of mine passes me a compilation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's short stories, and I was just totally blown away. I was so inspired. I kept looking at those beautiful, tragic, fragile characters, and it took me about two or three weeks to come up with all the stories for the graphic novel. It took me about another month or so to illustrate that, then it made it in time for the book fair. It came out and sold a couple of thousand units.
In 2009 I buy A Drifting Life, and I remember reading that one night and I was just blown away by this man's life. Because prior to that, I only knew of the short stories, I didn't know anything about him or what he went through. And there was a picture of him on the last page, and it said 'Yoshihiro Tatsumi, 74 years old'. I said “I ought to do a tribute film!” So, I have a friend working in Fujifilm and I said “Can you please try to find him [Tatsumi] and tell him there's a Singaporean who wants to meet him and maybe do a feature film?” This friend also sent him my last feature film, and then he was agreeable to meet.
We were at this basement coffee shop in a book shop area in Tokyo, and we spent a good three hours talking, with a translator – unfortunately I can't speak Japanese, he can't speak English – and then I opened my book, my little notepad, and he saw my drawings in there and how I wanted to tell the story – short stories, life story, the combination. Then he smiled. I think for him, because I can draw, he felt more comfortable. But he also later said that he could identify with the characters in my films.
After three, four hours he gives me his blessing to make the film, and I'm really happy hearing that. Then he says “How long is it going to take?” I said “To be honest, I've never done animation.” Initially he thought I wanted to do a live-action film of his stories, and I said “It's going to be animation because I love your artwork so much.” He said “I'm getting old. And I want to see the film.” Sooooo...
Q: Hurry, hurry!
EK: I'd made the mistake of saying I can shoot a film in two weeks. Then I said “Maybe nine months, one year.” He said “That long?”
I came back to Singapore, and I called this friend of mine, Mike Wiluan, who owns an animation studio in Indonesia, Infinite Frameworks, and it takes about 45 minutes by boat from Singapore to this place. So I met up with Mike and his guy, Phil Mitchell, who's Canadian – he did a series called ReBoot – and he got together two guys, two Filipinos, and these guys had done anime, had done some animation for Disney, and they got a young team of 25 animators just fresh out of school, and it was really “How are we gonna get this look?”
One of the references I gave is the ViewMaster, this thing that you put into a plastic viewer so when you look at it everything is 2D, but there is depth of field. I wanted them to create something like this in Tatsumi, and I wanted also not to have the short stories in black and white. I wanted them to have different colours, like in the Japanese printing method. One colour, but different tones. Thank heavens also for technology. I didn't have to go to Batam all the time. I'd be in Singapore and they'd send me the rushes. I'd watch and say “I like this, I don't like that.”
Q: Obviously there was a big amount of material, and I was wondering about the selection. It must have been crazy – what's in and what's out.
EK: What I told everyone is that, “We will use all his panels as the storyboard of the film.” We do not create any additional shots. Everything must be from the source. And what that meant was that some of the stories I had to edit. The hardest was his life. 800 pages! I had to condense it down to 35 minutes! For him [Tatsumi], he has always loved cinema and he had dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but realised maybe it was safer to just be alone with a piece of paper rather than deal with so many people.
Q: If Tatsumi had become a filmmaker, what kind of movies do you think he would have made? Film noir?
EK: I think film noir thriller. Because if you look at Black Blizzard – that's his first full-length comic [its creation in the late '50s is featured in the biographical strand of Eric's movie] – it's got all that, and it's beautiful. He could do three pages of a man being kidnapped, no dialogue, and it's just feet, close-up, long shot, and it creates suspense just with the panels. A lot of the publishers used to call him and say “You're wasting paper,” and he'd say “But this is new language.”
When you look at manga today, a lot of it has to do with gekiga. It was rebellious, it was real raw, and people like Mishima, all these guys, were into this new movement. Manga means literally 'fun pictures'. Gekiga means 'dramatic pictures'. He wanted to put in the drama and all that, because prior to what he was doing, it was only humour comic strips, and fantasy strips by Tezuka. He said “Let's focus on people.”
Q: His work is so popular. Do you have any idea why they never made a movie before?
EK: He had been approached by a lot of people. At some point some Europeans actually signed a deal with him to do Hell as a full-length, live-action film, with Takeshi Kitano acting in it. But these things came, they fizzled out. When he met me he said “Is this thing gonna happen or not?” And I said “I hope so,” and I'm glad we finished it.
Q: Obviously you've worked with Tatsumi now, but first and foremost you're a fan. What do you think the unique appeal of his work is? Do you think it's the quality of his artwork or do you think it's the human nature of his characters?
EK: The characters. I just love the characters. When I met him I said “A lot of people say your stories are perverse and dark, but really deep at its core [they're] all about humanity. And you are such a caring and loving creator. You torture your characters, but there's this beauty about them.” I think it works so well.
Q: Does animation need someone like Tatsumi? Someone who makes clear that it is not only for children?
EK: Because I'm such a fanboy, I hope that people will see Tatsumi and realise “Hey, there's something to these stories,” and maybe go and buy A Drifting Life, and read 800 pages-worth of his life. Now he's working on A Drifting Life II, and that will end in Cannes. He's already drawn 200 pages! He still needs another 200 pages, which he thinks he'll have done by April, and then it'll be released.
But the story that he's working on after, it's a fictional story, [and] I really love it. I keep telling him “Once you get the story, even if it's just roughly out, share it with me.” Because you see, I'm totally out of ideas. After my stripper movie [about real-life '50s south-east Asian pin-up, Rose Chan], I don't know what I'm going to do.
His new story is about reincarnation. And it's a love story. He described to me the first three minutes – wow! Tetsuya Bessho, my voice talent, translated it all for me, and he looked at me and I looked at him and he goes “What an idea!” and I go “Yeah!” I have to wait till after he [Tatsumi] finishes A Drifting Life Part II, which is April, but I think if I nag him he may start to tell me more. It would be my dream. Most of my films are set in reality, just like his stories, but I think with this one he's going to try something different. Hearing it, I think a bit of magical realism.
Q: Tatsumi saw the film for the first time in Cannes. How was his reaction?
EK: At one point he was asleep! But I was falling asleep too – jet lag. At the end of it, he looked at me, started clapping, and he smiled, and he said “Arigatō.” [Japanese for “Thank you”] And that did it for me.
Q: Have you seen any other movies since you arrived in Cannes?
EK: I wanted to see Aki Kaurismäki's film [Le Havre] so badly. I met him actually at the Tokyo Film Festival back in '97. I approached him and I said “Hello, Mr. Kaurismäki. I really like your films and I'm from Singapore.” And he looked at me, and he says [adopts gruff, booming voice] “I HATE YOUR COUNTRY! YOU BAN CHEWING GUM, YOU CANE CHILDREN, YOU EXECUTE PEOPLE! I DON'T WANNA TALK!” So he walks away, and I'm like 'Shit, this guy is so horrible!'
After half-an-hour, I drank some more and went and disturbed him again. I said “You hate my country, but I love your films. Can we talk?” And then we talked about films the whole night. The funny thing was that the parting shot he said to me was “YOU, GOOD MAN!” And then we were at this party last night, my son's with me, and he [Kaurismäki] says “I HATE THIS!” Then he takes out his electronic cigarettes and starts to smoke, and he's looking at my son, and he says “LISTEN TO YOUR FATHER! HE IS GOOD MAN!”