Masaaki Yuasa

This week in Director Spotlight Yuasa, Masaaki

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The Master Auteur

Some may question why I include one of the great names of anime, Masaaki Yuasa, within the “newbie” section of my Spotlights. His work, and influence, goes back into the 90’s with great names like Anno, Oshii, Dezaki, and Takahata all praising his work. This man is one of the pillars of Anime today and his influence can be felt in almost every great work since the turn of the century. Those who cite Miyazaki and Kon as the last great animators, have clearly been missing out. These shows are not only visually stunning, but the pace, cuts, and timing of how he produces that visual front is on a truly fantastic level.

Yet, here we are. Some might recognize Tatami Galaxy as being an oft recommended series (that few have seen) and others will remember dropping Ping Pong because of its supposed “bad animation”. So lets re-introduce Yuasa.


Chibi Maruko-Chan

Yuasa gets his first shot at fully directing the OP and ED. He basically invents the comedy based OP/ED formula, and his use of cuts, abstract transitions, and timed reaction sets the blue print to basically every OP/ED of today.

Cat Soup

Directed by Tatsuo Sato, with Yuasa given full reigns on storyboard, animation, and script. Well regarded as a *masterpiece* within anime. I want to give full credit to the great Tatsuo Sato, as his work and skill with this makes it his to own. It is interesting to see Yuasa expand and divulge his weird aesthetic, with Sato presumably holding the reigns back a bit.

The OVA sets the standard of what to expect with Yuasa. Lots of fluid motion and transitions, a melancholic feeling of oppressive nature, and communication through key framing. If every single work of Yuasa lost the dialog, he would still be able to communicate the feeling, mood, and story to such great extent. This wonderful and expressive style has been adopted throughout anime, but to see it so centrally focused is a truly great experience.

Genius Party: Happy Machine

A nice call back to Cat Soup and it’s quiet, dialog free story of life. Genius Party is quite the apt name as every short in this is quite amazing.

Kick-Heart

Done as part of a joint project through Kick Starter. It is 12 minutes of pure love!

Also serves as one of the first projects under Yuasa’s own company Science Saru. A nice homage to Tiger Mask and Japanese/Mexican masked wrestling.


Mind Game

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Here we go! Yuasa releases his first film, and solo work. Boom, you can sure tell that Sato isn’t around anymore. The whole film is lavish, high concept art direction with excessive pomp. If your new to Yuasa’s work, then watching the first 20 minutes of this film is a sure way to burn his name into your soul.

With essentially three scenes, and any semblance of structure destroyed, Yuasa treats us to his unique LSD world. I would talk more about it, but the entire film is such an experience. If you plan on watching, DO SO NOW. If your on the fence, give me 1:40 of your time and watch a love scene. When I tell you that it doesn’t spoil anything in the film, hopefully you’ll understand the task ahead of you.

Every shot, transition, montage, even character designs and the rooms they inhabit go to shit and spiral into brilliance.

The film can be quite jarring, and some may question pieces of the work. Much like Quentin Tarantino, the whole film lives inside a specific vision. Using photo visual, animated, and live video in a mixture that creates some unique visual ideas

It’s quite the unique experience and exactly what the Director wanted.


MadHouse Era

Yuasa moved to MadHouse to begin an epic relationship. Switching from Mind Game and the OVA focus of his previous works and into series composition. Kemonozume, Kaiba, and Tatami Galaxy came out of this glorious new era, each looking into unique stories, themes, and looks.

With some Directors, the art and feel of a series can seem very similar to previous works. Yuasa on the other hand is bringing a new aesthetic and style to each piece that is wholly unique. He creates a vision that are solely for the piece, and famously told his episode directors to go wild and be creative as possible. A visionary auteur director in his early days.

Kemonozume

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I haven’t yet addressed how nearly every Yuasa work features bizarrely rendered sex scenes or generally unconventional eroticism. Mind Game might have given you quite a shock, and Kemonozume is here to follow up.

A human eating demon and a demon hunter play Romeo & Juliet. The entire series is fantastic in the visceral and dark vision of that love story. Whenever people have spoken about R&J as a love story, I found it impossible to see. It’s a story of stupid, horny, and irresponsible kids. Kemonozume manages to find that grounded decision to love that R&J supposedly offers. The art becomes surreal and episodes can feel very different with directors making their mark, but through it all Yuasa keeps the characters and world solidly placed.


Kaiba

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Outside of Yuasa’s interest in sex, he also enjoys exploring the travels of life within the greater picture. Kaiba takes us to an entire Universe and Yuasa moves away from the visceral red and grey world of Kemonozume. Moving the entire vision of his previous work is quite a herculean task, and there are some flaws to be seen.

The story is a wonderful journey of discovery and seeking to expand one’s mind.

The first few episodes are exceptional, but perhaps working on too tight a deadline, the ending is quite shaky. The story doesn’t have that same crisp quality, and lacks that grounded story boarding. Luckily Yuasa learns from this and takes quite a while before moving onto Tatami Galaxy, making sure the vision is perfect.


Tatami Galaxy

MAL | Trailer

One of Yuasa’s great strengths, outside of his amazing art and directorial skills, is his skill with characters and narration. Bringing together the odd sex of Kemonozume, the journey of knowledge from Kaiba, and blending it with an amazing singular narrator in Tatami Galaxy. This is the *masterpiece* of Yuasa’s career so far.

Tatami is a fireworks display of genius. If you come to this show unprepared, it makes sure you know it, with an opening scene of machine-gun dialog layered over fast cut images. I made it 5 minutes before I felt ashamed at missing any single detail, and much like the story, I began from the start.

The show follows our MC narrator, featuring an interesting cast of characters

Who join him on a Groundhog Day style adventure. The series constantly questions our perspective on the world, with the Narrator typically changing our view from reality into his own prideful one.

Yuasa really out does himself with Tatami Galaxy. Other series has featured drastically abstract art and direction, but with this one he manages to find just the right amount. Jumping from serene moments

to mind shattering,

Yuasa guides us through this story. One of the “must see” anime that everyone should experience, Yuasa manages to build the story into one of the best finales ever.



Ping Pong the Animation

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Returning to a full series after 4 years, and under his own company, Yuasa brings a shoe-string budget “sports anime” to the top of Anime. Utilizing some of the animation styles of Kick-Heart, the visual aspect of the show may put off initial viewers. But do not confuse budget with quality, this series is a new benchmark for great sports anime. Ping Pong might not make it to the “classics” height that Tatami Galaxy has seen, but it’s earned enough respect to have that conversation.

Blending the character styles of Kemonozume, and flash of Kaiba, Yuasa brings to life this story of characters and struggle. Though it is listed as a sport anime, and it certainly has its moments, Ping Pong is about characters on a journey, and each character has his own drive that is reflected within his play. From Smile’s precision serve, to China’s desperation, Demon’s passive intensity, Dragon’s power, and Peco not waiting to strike.

Yuasa takes us on a very traditional “Samurai Spirit” story, and creates a sports anime that becomes elevated to be so much more. Look at how he introduces a tournament

Enveloping us in this small world of sport, especially one that is so solitary, is no easy task. Through it all, you can really feel Yuasa’s great direction.


Final Thoughts

Masaaki Yuasa is an inspiration in the Anime industry, and he continually finds new ground and visuals to cover. An impressive man, making some of the best in the business today.

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