Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reel Asian 2012: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the The 2012 Reel Asian International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Tatsumi (Dir: Eric Khoo, Singapore, 2011, 98 mins.)

Screens: Friday, November 9, 2012, 11:00 p.m. @ The Royal

This animated biopic recounts the life and times of Japan's Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who was at the forefront of transforming manga from simple kid-centric comics to an artform with both a cinematic visual sweep and a psychological depth to appeal to adult readers. Tatsumi has recalled the story of what he prefers to be labelled "gekiga" in his sprawling autobiography A Drifting Life, which gets bogged down in places with minutiae surrounding Japan's comic-book publishing industry in the 50's and 60's. Although a little unfocused at first (the film launches with Tatsumi's homage to his mentor, manga legend Osamu Tezuka without providing any context), this does an admirable job of winnowing out the extraneous material to get to the heart of the story.

Ultimately, the film's aim to is weave together three mutually-supportive strands: some contextual history about life in postwar Japan, Tatsumi's biography and a selection of his stories. It's that final element that really elevates the film, bringing Tatsumi's clean lines to life in a way that respects his visual style while reflecting and amplifying the historical and biographical themes — and expressing the melancholic despair that underlies them all. Thus "Hell" gives a sense of some of the broader post-Hiroshima political feelings while "Occupied" tells the tale of a struggling manga artist. And toward the end, "Good Bye"'s tale of a superannuated office worker nearing retirement reflects on Tatsumi's own feelings of mortality.

It seems that this will most likely appeal to those that already know Tatsumi's work, and perhaps seem like a niche offering for the manga crowd. But Tatsumi is a master storyteller whose appeal transcends such narrow limits, so this might give a push to some new readers. If this does sound intriguing, you should definitely check out the collections issued in North America by Drawn & Quarterly, such as The Push Man & Other Stories and Abandon The Old In Tokyo.

Addendum, January '13: It looks like this will be getting a theatrical run at TIFF at the end of the month (details here) so be sure to head out for your chance to see this on the big screen.

Wolf Children (Dir: Mamoru Hosoda, Japan, 2012, 117 mins.)

Screens: Saturday, November 10, 2012, 8:15 p.m. @ The Royal

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films will not want to miss this new feature that feels indebted to his work. In fact, with its rural setting and reverence for nature, it feels like Totoro could be just a mountain away. It also features fiercely strong female characters in a villain-free tale that is more of an unusual domestic story than any sort of battle between good and evil.

In voiceover, Yuki recounts the story of her parents' romance, wherein her mother Hana soon discovers that the lone wolf in her university classes has another side to himself. That's not enough to stop the path of true love, but does lead to sadness and confusion after his death when Hana is left in the care of two children who have inherited his shapeshifting werewolf abilities.

Taking the children to the remote mountains not only keeps them away from prying eyes, but gives them a chance to explore both sides of their nature. As they grow older, Yuki is attracted to the human world and new friends at school while younger brother Ame, initially shy and withdrawn, is pulled toward his animal nature after the discovery of his sensei, the last wild wolf who rules over the deepest forests.

All of this is a metaphor for the way that any child has to negotiate their family background to find their own path in life, making this a relatable story about growing up. Despite some hard times (and a few harrowing adventures), it's presented with a general tone of sweetness. But the relationships help to keep things grounded, and except for some overly-contrived drama in the final act, the film feels satisfyingly tethered to real life.

Hosoda's visuals, meanwhile, are generally quite spectacular. Often preferring wide, expansive shots, this should look quite excellent on the big screen (especially in being presented on 35mm). Not a masterpiece, but very much worth seeing for anyone with a working knowledge of Miyazaki looking to expand their reach.

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