Taking a look back at the series and films that have made Masaaki Yuasa’s career such an amazingly wild ride!
Director Masaaki Yuasa had a hell of a year in 2018, and he and his team at Science Saru show no signs of slowing down. With the future looking bright, now is a great time to dive into some of his biggest creative hits of the past 15 years.
Mind Game (2004)
Mind Game is Masaaki Yuasa’s feature debut, and it’s this film above all others that established him as a certified anime auteur thanks to his having not only directed the film, but also written the script and designed the characters.
To say it’s not exactly like typical anime is an understatement. Virtually every shot alters in animation style: there’s CGI, papercraft, watercolors, pencil sketches, rotoscoping, and even bits of live-action all psychedelically blended together. All of this is in the service of a slightly more conventional narrative where underachieving Nishi is reunited with his exceedingly top-heavy childhood sweetheart Myon … whereupon he is summarily killed by way of gunshot directly up the wazoo. Following a confrontation with God while in purgatory, Nishi summons enough bravery and passion to turn back time to just before the moment of his death so that he can clench his butt REALLY hard to turn the tables on his assailants … and then he, Myon, and Myon’s sister Yang all get swallowed by a giant whale that is home to an elderly man!
So naturally, they all decide to make the whale their home and party hard, free of all cares and inhibitions, before realizing, “Actually, we should get out of this whale.” That last sentence describes the “plot” of the entire second half, but be honest: given the chance, wouldn’t we all engage in passionate sex within the belly of a whale, where we crawl on the ceiling mid-coitus?! As far as wild rides go, Mind Game remains one of the wildest and has forever equated Masaaki Yuasa with “no safe bets will be taken” in my book ever since. You’ll either absolutely despise it or think of it as one of the best things ever made. And now, fans in the USA can finally watch it either streaming or on Blu-ray!
– Daryl Surat
When Yuasa tackles science fiction, he does it in ways only he is capable of bringing on-screen—and using methods no one would usually expect. That’s part of what made his unique release Kaiba such a success, more than a decade later.
The universe of Kaiba’s rules dictate that when people die, their minds can still live on. That’s because individuals’ memories and other information can simply be digitized and then transferred to a new body. Because of this, however, society has been divided up into two classes. Those who live above electrical storms never have to worry about losing their memories. Below, the “slums” house individuals who can’t find good bodies and live in squalor, much like we see in series like Galaxy Express 999 and the haves and have-nots of those who can afford robot bodies to live forever.
It can often feel inscrutable or bizarre, but like most of Yuasa’s other works, that’s what makes it such an exciting watch. It’s a mystery that’s well worth sitting all the way through to unravel, and as disconcerting and strange as it can feel, it’s sure to remain with you long after the last of the 12 episodes has ended. We haven’t seen anything quite like the series since its 2008 run, and if you relish surrealism and confusing narratives in your anime, this is a no-brainer.
– Brittany Vincent
The Tatami Galaxy (2010)
It’s unlikely I’ll ever relate to another of Masaaki Yuasa’s works as much as I did to The Tatami Galaxy. Adapted from a novel by Tomihiko Morimi (the same author responsible for the novel The Night is Short, Walk on Girl was adapted from), Galaxy follows the life of a nameless college freshman forced to perpetually relive increasingly absurd iterations of his college career in pursuit of realizing his ideal of a “rose-colored campus life” at the side of a “raven-haired maiden.” It’s a simple story (no matter what the central time-looping conceit and the endless verbal and visual onslaught of information might suggest) about learning to appreciate the chaos of life’s rich pageant bereft of the lofty philosophical speculation about identity and systemic oppression seen in Kaiba and Devilman Crybaby or the deliberately constructed and then examined characters of Ping Pong: The Animation, yet none of those stories seem to me quite as sympathetic, as grounded in the pain of personal experience, as The Tatami Galaxy.
I think in particular of a scene near series’ end that finds the protagonist resigned to never leaving his room (the so-called “tatami galaxy” of the title). Unlike a similar scene in Yuasa’s earlier Mind Game wherein the protagonists’ isolation and imaginations spur them to rejoin the world, the hero here is so emotionally ruined that he dares not leave his room, his imagination shrinking to match. When I first encountered it crouched over my near-broken laptop on the near-broken army cot I’d appropriated as a bed, I was beside myself. Six months after a ruined relationship found me moving to New York with nothing more than a duffel bag of clothes, I had been stymied socially, artistically, and professionally, felt like a certified failure whose various rejections suggested not that the world was wrong but that I, myself, was fundamentally flawed, and so I had taken to spending days at a time in my room doing nothing but rote freelance work. While I had flourished alongside a group of eccentric friends in university, I had secretly resented my experiences as frivolous. Then, outside of it I floundered, and so resented myself for my earlier resentment.
I had never—have never—felt more alone than in those months I first moved here. And so while watching those last episodes of Tatami Galaxy I had never felt quite so seen. It’s a show that is so openly sympathetic to its protagonist’s unspectacular but still wrenching pain and so closely approximated my own it felt as if Yuasa was drawing from his personal well of frustrations to show how such defeats can turn so easily to self-loathing and then self-imposed isolation. Yet it’s also an encouragement, an embarrassing exposure made in hopes of freeing others from that same isolation. It’s personal and unguarded and sweet in ways not even his other, more mature works are, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
– Austin Price
Kick-Heart was one of the early examples of an anime being crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and, full disclosure, it’s also one of the few Kickstarters to which I’ve actually bothered to contribute! At the end of the day, Yuasa and his team delivered on their promised short, which conveys a simple tale of love between a professional wrestler and a nun as told through a psychedelic anime lens. If the end goal was to condense the surreal, experimental animation for which Yuasa is known into the tightest package possible, Kick-Heart was a resounding success. There’s more imagination and creative execution packed into its sub-13-minute runtime than the entirety of most series, and while its narrative may not be particularly deep, it has enough visual allure to make it worth rewatching on a regular basis.
– Joseph Luster
Ping-Pong: The Animation (2014)
Taiyo Matsumoto—creator of Tekkonkinkreet and Sunny, among other series—is a one-of-a-kind manga author. His work has a special energy to it that makes it leap off the page without the assistance of animation or color, and that same energy is as loud as ever in his 1996-1997 manga series Ping Pong. Director Fumihiko Sori managed to harness some of its power in his 2002 live-action film, but in the world of animation, no one is quite as worthy to adapt Matsumoto as the man of the hour, Masaaki Yuasa.
Ping Pong: The Animation ran as part of Fuji TV’s noitaminA block during the spring season of 2014, delivering 11 episodes that managed to turn ping pong into a gorgeously animated high stakes expression of competition, youth, and the type of existential questions that seem to pop up just as high school and the unknowable future beyond stretches forever into the horizon. As far as adaptations go, Ping Pong is perfection, and there’s enough heart in its production to completely obliterate the nets and tables of even the most hot-blooded sports anime out there.
– Joseph Luster
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (2017)
Based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi and a spiritual sequel to The Tatami Galaxy, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is a 2017 film with direction by Masaaki Yuasa and animation by Science Saru that chronicles one crazy night in the youthful adult life of the titular Raven-Haired Girl, a spunky college student determined to ditch her friend’s wedding reception and enjoy every simple pleasure the evening has to offer. In the process, she bounces from party to party, encountering rare drinks and delicacies, unlikely deities (the god of used books, the god of sickness), guerrilla theater troupes, and all manner of Sophists, slackers, and perverts in an adventure that is surreal, whimsical, and more than a little strange. Meanwhile, Senpai, a young man who is not-so-secretly smitten with the Raven-Haired Girl and who admires her from afar, goes through Hell and high water in his efforts to catch her eye.
The Night is Short, Walk On Girl is arguably one of the strangest animated films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen the bulk of Masaaki Yuasa’s oeuvre. Unlike Lu Over the Wall, this film functions almost entirely on the symbolic level, with the literal text serving only to shore up an exploration of the concepts of youth and romantic love in all of their contradictions and absurdities. It’s an exquisitely well-made film, but The Night is Short, Walk on Girl didn’t jive with me for reasons that weren’t entirely connected to the viewing experience: I wasn’t in the mood for a movie where the ostensible protagonist is a mediocre man looking for a woman’s love to fix his personal inadequacies, and some of the film’s jokes and sexual politics struck a nerve. Still, if you’re in the mood for a celebration of youthful folly and you don’t mind bruising your ego on the film’s few rough edges, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is well worth your time.
– Paul Thomas Chapman
Lu Over the Wall (2017)
In Lu Over the Wall, Kai Ashimoto is a moody teenager who dreams of being a musician, but instead he’s trapped in a rural fishing village alongside his divorced dad and a whole town full of people with whom he can’t seem to connect. All of this changes one day when Kai is press-ganged into joining a rock band by his classmates, and Kai quickly discovers that his musical stylings have caught the attention of a local mermaid named Lu. Lu loves to sing and to dance, and she just wants to be friends with the human population of Hinashi, but local legends say that when mermaids appear, disaster is sure to follow.
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa and featuring animation production by Science Saru, Lu Over the Wall is a visually vibrant and emotionally resonant film full of bright colors, optimistic themes, and hope for humanity. Few films function so perfectly both on the literal and the allegorical level, but with Lu Over the Wall, Yuasa and company have created a movie that delivers both plot and metaphor in a manner that is as moving as it is seemingly effortless. Lu Over the Wall is the Yang to Devilman Crybaby’s Yin. It reminds us that when we learn to embrace our frustration and confusion, when we allow our own dreams to adapt and grow and intertwine with the dreams of other people, and when we come together to support each other as friends and families and communities, the results can be truly magical.
– Paul Thomas Chapman
Devilman Crybaby (2018)
Devilman crybaby is, by far, one of Yuasa’s best and most instantly recognizable works, and a wild reimagining of the 1972 anime series Devilman. Devilman crybaby is a raucous fever dream that culls modern technology and social media like Twitter and YouTube together with the demonic narrative of Go Nagai’s original story to make a thrill ride that’s like nothing else we’ve seen come out of the anime world in the last few years.
The iconic Akira Fudo is the titular “crybaby,” who can always be found with tears running down his cheeks any time he experiences a kind of extreme emotion or sees others crying. His soft exterior and kind heart make him the target of classmates’ jokes, and it’s his best friend Ryo Asuka who eventually helps to bring him out of it—in one of the most nefarious ways possible. Ryo has a secret that he eventually divulges to Akira: he’s discovered that demons actually exist. He exposes them to the soft-hearted Akira, and from there, seeks to draw the demons hidden within out from its attendees, including his young friend.
Thus, Akira becomes a “Devilman,” in turn, a demon that can retain its nature as a human but go absolutely insane with power in a new, demonic form. Akira’s first transformation into Devilman himself is a surreal trip, and the series only spirals out of control from there. He plans to rule the world with Akira as a tool by his side, and what unfolds is a blitz of emotion, sex, violence, and the difficult truths of the world, all culminating in an especially depressing ending. Yuasa’s signature fluid animation makes it all possible, transforming what could have ultimately been an unattractive gorefest into an attractive ballet of human and demonic interaction. And it’s the best iteration of Devilman to have ever existed because of it.
– Brittany Vincent