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Masaaki Yuasa Speaks in Many Colors

Director of cult classic ‘Mind Game’ delves into the making of this year’s two award-winning animated features, ‘Lu over the Wall’ and ‘Night is Short, Walk on Girl.’

‘Lu over the Wall’ (2017)

Anytime you see that you’re getting a new festival entry from Masaaki Yuasa, you feel a tinge of excitement, but when you scroll down the list and see two feature film submitted by the very same man, well, that’s just orgasmic.

Already a cult figure in the animation scene, Yuasa added to that reputation in 2017 by releasing two stunning, contrasting and widely acclaimed animated features: Lu Over the Wall - about a displaced young boy who befriends -- to the disenchantment of local villagers -- a local mermaid; Night is Short, Walk on Girl is set during a seemingly endless evening of insane alcohol consumption in Kyoto. A young university student, Senpai (who some might recognize from the 2010 Yuasa-directed TV series, Tatami Galaxy), decides to confess love for Otome. During the strange evening, littered with eccentric characters, Senpai decides to create some “chance” encounters to win over the woman.

Masaaki Yuasa

Both films were immediate successes with Lu over the Wall grabbing the Cristal for Best Feature Film at the 2017 Annecy International Animation Festival. Night is Short, Walk on Girl then took home the Grand Prize for Animated Feature at the 2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Like a fusion of Tex Avery, Dali and even -- seriously -- Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, Yuasa’s work (which includes short films and TV series along with the cult favorite feature film, Mind Game) bursts with visual energy, rapid fire color patterns, sudden shifts in character design, elastic character movements. You’re never sure where you are in this kaleidoscopic dance dreamscapes. Yuasa’s work for film and TV, no matter the genre is consistently imaginative, magical and original. He seems to get animation. There are no rules in animation. You are not bound by laws of physics. Yet, so many animation artists can’t seem to grasp than, perhaps fearful of the freedom. Yuasa shows no such fear as he gives us worlds and people that are stylized, exaggerated, distorted and impossible. Yet his works tell us more truths about individuals, relationships and society than so many of the mainstream animation frauds hell bent on regurgitating the same endless tropes and types no matter how tired, tedious and predictable. These counterfeits think they’re telling us great stories about ourselves when really their breaths are as stale and staid as the corporate spaces that exhaled them.

Yuasa’s work lets the audience breath. There are mysteries unexplained, left for us to ponder, to make sense of, or to walk away from. Every episode, say, of the extraordinary series, Tatami Express, is a standalone work of art that rivals any indie animation short. In it, he takes a fairly common theme of feckless post-secondary youth on campus and turns it into an utterly surreal, time-shifting portrait of youth, identity, community and society. In fact, throughout all of Yuasa’s work (whether it’s the bizarre 2006 Romeo & Juliet-meets-flesh-eating monsters series Kemonozume, or 2014’s Ping Pong), we encounter anxious, feckless people sifting through life in search of a worthy purpose or at the very least a meaningful connection. It wouldn’t be stretching it to say that the many characters who populate Yuasa’s universe wouldn’t be out of place in the philosophical books of Kierkegaard, who, in a different medium and manner, wrote in shifting tones, voices, names and styles ( much like Yuasa’s work makes frequent shifts in design and style) as he attempted to sort out the question of how does one live.

‘Night is Short Walk on Girl’ (2017)

“I love both Tex Avery and Salvador Dali,” Yuasa admits. “I’ve been influenced by a lot of artists I get inspired with a lot of things I see, hear, smell, and touch in everyday life. I believe whole things inspiring me could be tuned into anime. Actually, the structure of tunes can be a model of storyboards when working on them. I often derive inspiration even from really modest visuals; a commercial, a cut from a movie, a movement from an anime as well as nameless flowers and grasses blooming on the road, clouds, stars, and moons in the sky. I’m also inspired with what I’m currently interested in and feeling. My humble wish for creating anime is to have common images, conversations, and scenes sublimed into art works.”

In terms of his stylistic choices, mixed-techniques and wide palate of colors, Yuasa said he had to be careful “not to get inclined to dark colors too much as both the movies are full of shaded and night scenes,” adding, “I turned to high-contrasted colors while using neutral colors as well so that you sense freshness and vividness on the whole. I believe that things should be pleasant in principle and that is why shots get fresh and vivid in terms of color design when characters have a sense of pleasure in the story.”

Now, getting one animation feature out and about is an accomplishment in itself, but to release two outstanding -- and refreshing -- features takes some kind of special talent. Of course, Yuasa had no idea he’d be undertaking two features at once. “It was when I was making Lu Over the Wall,” he says, “that I got the green light to start the Night is Short project. I had to hurry and went into the pre-production phase while still making Lu because we hired freelance animators when we began with the production and we had to shift them to Night is Short before they would say goodbye to us.”

While I wondered how difficult it must be to shuttle back and forth between two very different projects, Yuasa says that their differences actually made it easier. “They were quite different in visual style,” he adds. “And that saved me from confusing their different movement styles of animation.”

Although widely different in terms of tone, style and intended audience, both films are ultimately about love, kindness and acceptance -- themes that we all need to be reminded of in this somewhat erratic time of intolerance. “Lu over the Wall is a story about a mermaid who just wishes to make good friends with human beings,” Yuasa says. “It’s about overcoming an irrational sense of discrimination and prejudice, about understanding and accepting alien creatures. Similarly, Night is Short is a fable about how you’ll only be happy when you wish for someone’s happiness and you’ll be unhappy when you just wish for your own happiness. Both movies depict how coming out of your shell could make things better. I love stories about opening up your heart.”

Despite having only one moderately successful feature film experience -- 2005’s Mind Game was a critical success but it was a box office failure; so much so that very few producers would even touch Yuasa after that -- Yuasa says that he rarely stresses out when he’s creating. In fact, his biggest stress is finding support: “I always enjoy making films but I must confess that I’d like to find more supporters and sympathizers and to make a commercial success. I really want to catch up with what people really want, but it is rather tough for me to try to achieve that.”

Lu over the Wall has all the potential to find a massive audience internationally. It’s a gentle, soulful film that has many hallmarks of a successful family feature, but that is much more inventive in terms of animation, story, character and technique. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the film will make a big dent in the North American market. “Orthodox narratives attract more moviegoers,” Yuasa notes. “Innovative ones might not necessarily appeal to them. But I always dream of something that is both innovative and appealing to people.”

Having worked in so many mediums, I wondered if Yuasa has a preference or if each offers different elements to an artist: “I like to make features because you can see vividly how the audience sees your efforts, but I’m also enjoying making TV shows because they allow you to develop stories longer and in more detail. Also it is pretty enjoyable to make a short piece once in a while because you can make elaborately crafted ones.”

As for the future, Yuasa is -- hardly a surprise -- already finishing up his next project, Devilman Crybaby. Comprising 10 thirty-minute episodes, the series will be released online early in 2018. “There’s lots of sex and violence. I believe the story will make audiences cry, and is highly unsuitable for children because it is unexpectedly shocking.”

I’d expect no less from this master of delicious and sorely needed unpredictability.

Chris Robinson's picture

A well-known figure in the world of independent animation, writer, author & curator Chris Robinson is the Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.