An Introduction to Japan’s Most Idiosyncratic and Exciting Animation Director, Masaaki Yuasa

Photo: Asmik Ace Entertainment/GKIDS

During the opening credits of The Tatami Galaxy, the 2010 anime series based on a novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the characters spin around and reveal just how two-dimensional they are. One by one, they flash by: our hapless narrator, his demonic best friend Ozu, his enigmatic love interest Akashi, big man on campus Jogasaki, the weird old fortune-teller, paper-thin cutouts assembling and pirouetting for the metaphysical collegiate puppet show that is about to take place. It’s almost as if the show is flaunting its flatness, is proud of its flatness.

This may sound like an undermining, but time and time again, director Masaaki Yuasa has found liberation in flatness. He’s one of the most exciting, multitalented, and prolific creators working in animation right now, but his films and shows don’t resemble the lush hyperreality of Makoto Shinkai (Your Name) or the verdant nostalgia of anyone in the Studio Ghibli universe. Rather, in idiosyncratic adaptations like Ping Pong or his feature-length opus Mind Game (which begins a revival run at Metrograph today), Yuasa exploits the flexibility of his medium (hand drawn but often computer-assisted) not to mimic reality, but to bend and stretch his characters and settings for maximum expressive and comedic power. If you want reassurance that animation as a medium is still an exciting, boundless frontier outside the commercial dominance of Pixar, and the critical adoration of all things Ghibli, look no further than Yuasa’s filmography.

Mind Game (2004) is the perfect place to start, and your reaction to it will be a great barometer of whether or not Yuasa is for you (because, and I’ll get into this more later, he’s not for everyone!). It’s ostensibly the story of weak-willed 20-year-old Nishi, a wannabe manga artist who has a chance reunion with his high-school sort-of girlfriend Myon. She’s engaged to get married, and they go to a yakitori bar to catch up, while Nishi struggles with whether or not to confess his lingering feelings for her. The bar is held hostage by an unhinged ex-football player and his handler, who claim the owner owes them World Cup tickets (the 2002 games were held in Korea and Japan; football fever wafts over Mind Game in a strange but significant way). Myon is assaulted, and Nishi, hesitating to defend her, is shot quite literally in/up the butt. In the afterlife, he encounters God, and is given a second chance at the encounter. Now with his bravado in overdrive, he manages to grab the gun from the thug with his butt cheeks, saves Myon and her sister Yan and makes a daring escape, only to drive them off a bridge and into the belly of a whale.

Despite that incredibly convoluted setup, the bulk of the film takes place inside the whale, where Nishi, Yan, and Myon encounter an old man who has been living there long enough to build a house over the “sea” inside its belly. The four of them, thrown together as castaways, use the limitations of their imprisonment in different ways — to rediscover old talents, rekindle old romances, dream about the future in hilarious, technicolor detail. The blank canvas of the darkness of the whale gives both Yuasa and his strange ensemble space to truly flex his creative muscles. He allows this section of the film to feel unstructured and spontaneous, at several points dipping into candy-colored sidebars that show how truly liberating it can be to be out of your mind with boredom. Their combined joy and madness is infectious.

Before his feature debut, as an up-and-coming animator Yuasa worked on long-running TV series Chibi Maruko-chan and Crayon Shin-chan, the latter of which has a somewhat Simpsons-like position in Japanese pop culture (it’s been on since 1992 and has aired nearly 1,000 episodes; the id-driven title character is basically the Japanese Bart Simpson). Chibi Maruko-chan is more like an Arthur, but both were shows with huge mainstream popularity that didn’t stylistically resemble what one might consider a stereotypical anime at all. The flat, childish simplicity of the characters were full of possibilities for Yuasa, and he got to truly show the world his stuff in the 1992 feature film Chibi Maruko-chan: My Favorite Song, during an exuberant, dreamlike car sequence.

Aside from his exaggerated, careening perspective and his willingness to let every man, woman, child, and car onscreen shape-shift with abandon, Yuasa’s use of color is totally wild, not only lacking continuity with the world and even itself, but also flipping within the same shot, as if Yuasa is rotating through a series of color filters on a whim. It’s liberated in the way some work by colorblind artists can be — perhaps more attentive to their use of it than average, but also hyperaware of its subjectiveness and ephemerality. And yet, despite all this seeming chaos onscreen, the sequence is fairly easy to follow, thanks to rhythmic, repetitive motion and editing that dances alongside the bouncy accompanying song. Even when he does away with color almost entirely, as with much of Tatami Galaxy or the comic-book stylings of Ping Pong’s opening credits, the kineticism of every frame leaps off the screen.

Few anime directors, let alone animation directors in general, have this much fun with music — choreographing to it, building stories around it. At its most rhythmic, Yuasa’s work has less to do with contemporary anime and has more in common with the wiggly retro-tinged omnivorousness of the work of John Kricfalusi or Sylvain Chomet. And he’s attracted a similarly unconventional international following. Western audiences may be most familiar with Yuasa from his guest stint directing Adventure Time’s 2014 episode “Food Chain,” for which he was nominated for an Annie Award along with art director Eunyoung Choi. It’s a loopy, music-driven, free-association departure from the show’s already quirky style; protagonists Finn and Jake are turned into birds and worms, sing a Mozart aria, and have a very trippy, molasses-slow interlude while experiencing time as plants.

Watch enough Yuasa and even the lines with which Finn and Jake are rendered will become recognizable — the flat, colorful style of Pendleton Ward’s world, his character’s simple faces and seemingly boneless appendages, are begging to be inhabited by the director. The morbid fascination with the fleeting nature of existence — whether you’re a parched worm or the bird that eats him — is also trademark Yuasa. Whether it’s the multiple parallel timelines of The Tatami Galaxy or the stunning life-in-a-blink montages that bookend Mind Game, Yuasa always keeps one foot in a macro view of his stories and worlds; for him, everything is about everything.

Yuasa’s storytelling isn’t for everyone, particularly his often stunted view of women. The rape-attempt scene in Mind Game and its significance in the overall plot feels out of step with the rest of the film, and though Myon ends up being more complex by the end, she’s still presented as a pole with a pair of breasts for most of the film. Yuasa, like Tatami Galaxy’s Real Doll–dating film jock Jogasaki, has a kind of terminal fascination with breasts, and though he’s self-aware enough about it to make it into a recurring joke, touches like that undermine Yuasa’s more philosophical leanings. How deep can you really get when most of your female characters are goalposts or trophies, when the use and contortion of anatomy starts to feel more violent than playful?

If that kind of stuff is a deal-breaker for you, then you might be advised to avoid Netflix’s Devilman Crybaby, Yuasa’s most recent (and most explicitly adult) work yet, which ends its first episode with a pansexual orgy that turns into a demonic bloodbath, the depiction of which renders the female body downright monstrous. Devilman is Yuasa’s take on a classic (and frequently adapted) manga by classic perv Go Nagai (Cutie Honey), and more often than not, the elder perv wins. But just when you start to think you have the show’s number, Yuasa subverts those expectations, specifically with the way the show deals with gender expectations and its central cast’s aberrant position within society. (Anime Feminist’s Vrai Kaiser has a great in-depth — and spoilery — look at Yuasa’s “thoughtful remake of an iconic and intensely problematic property.”) Suffice to say, Yuasa is trying to say something bigger than his predecessors, but he’s also not above preserving and reveling in Nagai’s more exploitative elements.

But in the same month that Devilman Crybaby hit Netflix, Yuasa had the U.S. premiere of his for-kids mermaid tale, Lu Over the Wall, at the Sundance Film Festival, and his other 2017 film The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl will also get a Stateside release later this year. The latter is based on another work by Tatami Galaxy author Tomihiko Morimi and appears to feature many of the same characters. The former is an original story written by Yuasa and The Cat Returns screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, and it is a delight. An aged-up Ponyo with a gender-reversed King Kong story arc, it follows an emotionally stunted teenage boy, the hapless rock band he gets roped into, and the adorable, musically prodigious mermaid they bond with. Like Devilman, it’s a story about young outsiders overcoming and transcending the violent fear of an older generation, but it’s also a playful, joyfully weird musical comedy. (Yuasa’s stint in the Adventure Time universe definitely rubbed off on him.)

Yuasa will never not be obsessed with sadboys and the quirky girls who change them, but when a director is having this much fun making a sleepy fishing village dance its collective ass off, it feels like a relatively easy trope to forgive. Moreover, it’s exciting to see an animator this confidently in his prime — in an interview around the release of Devilman Crybaby, he proclaimed, “In terms of my own ability, it really feels like I’m at my peak. It’s as if I can accomplish anything!” Call it boastfulness, but it’s a refreshing change from the meme-level doom and gloom Hayao Miyazaki has become known for in his later years. It only makes sense; these are two animators with wildly different sensibilities, at wildly different points in their careers. I want to believe Yuasa can accomplish anything; I can’t wait to see him try.

An Intro to Japan’s Most Idiosyncratic Animation Director