After developing a cult reputation among anime fans, 2018 is when anime director Masaaki Yuasa landed in the U.S. with atomic force. In January, Netflix released his latest series, the brutal, explicit, endearing Devilman Crybaby, to rave reviews (including one from Polygon). His movie Lu Over the Wall got a theatrical run in May. His first feature, 2004’s Mind Game, is finally getting a proper American DVD and Blu-Ray release later this month. And this week, his latest film, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, will arrive to theaters for a special engagement.
Even if you devour all of these, you’ll have tasted but a small sampling of the wild and wondrous animation Yuasa has created.
Yuasa operates within the “One rule: No rules” school of thought. Absolutely anything can happen in his films or series. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the plots are random or just bounce from one wild thing to another (although they certainly sometimes do, most notably in Mind Game). Rather, Yuasa won’t let any convention of animation — consistent models, staging, A-to-B editing — stand in the way of conveying the empathic reality of a scene. His characters contort and warp as they move or emote. He’ll divide a shot into multiple panels, then zoom in on one of them to continue a scene in lieu of a cut. Colors and screen effects burst and bloom and flow at will. His style is bold and immediately recognizable wherever it appears.
In anticipation of the dual arrivals of The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and Mind Game, here are how some striking examples of how Yuasa’s work showcase this sensibility.
Genius Party: “Happy Machine”
Like most anime directors, Yuasa got his start at the drafting desk, working as an animator, layout artist, and character designer on shows and movies throughout the ‘90s, most notably Crayon Shin-chan, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Samurai Champloo, and the cult surrealist classic Cat Soup, which he also co-wrote. After putting in the time with the industry he was able to bring Mind Game to fruition, and that ambitious psychedelic odyssey firmly established him as an experimental voice.
Yuasa was one of seven directors to contribute short films to this 2007 anthology. In “Happy Machine,” a baby leaves the safety of the crib after his “mother” turns out to be a robot facsimile. (Or something like that — it’s a humanoid figure covered in balloons that project the image of a maternal figure. The dude’s got imagination.) The child then toddles through a journey filled with allegorical dangers: a would-be playmate made of fire that crisps everything it touches; a stick-limbed creature that for a time shepherds him; giant snapping Venus flytraps. This parable for growing up demonstrates Yuasa’s love of imagery that makes emotional, if not literal, sense.
In this 2013 short (available on Amazon Video), a businessman and a nun are both trying to help an orphanage through their secret personas as professional wrestlers — and they fall in love with one another in the process. Anyone who saw Devilman Crybaby is already well-aware of Yuasa’s affinity for outré sexuality, and this film revels in the kinky costuming and physicality of wrestling. In his climactic fight with “Lady S,” “Maskman M” savors every savage blow she lands on him. One pure Yuasa moment has her bounce from extraordinary heights off the ropes to body-slam him, with each impact coming not as a visceral “crash” but with a brief freeze frame and a dainty chiming sound effect. To them, each exaggerated blow is a kiss.
Ping-Pong: The Animation
Anime has a reputation for making some of the most mundane subjects (playing card games, trying to save a dropped sausage, eating potato chips) as dramatic as possible. 2014’s Ping-Pong: The Animation gleefully embraces this idea in depicting the game. But the use of ultra-exaggerated animation, slow motion, split screens, and ping-pong balls morphing into dragons is there for more than merely making this table-based game exciting. It also expresses the multitude of little strategic maneuvers that go into playing the game. What separates a hobbyist from a professional is being able to approach the sport on a deeper mental level, even if that may not be immediately apparent to the average spectator. Why just show a ping-pong match when you can dramatize the duel of wills going on beneath it?
Adventure Time: “Food Chain”
Adventure Time got increasingly experimental as it went on, and handed off several episodes to guest directors to do basically whatever they felt like. This 2014 installment from the sixth season sees Yuasa run Finn and Jake through the circle of life by morphing them into various organisms at different stages of that circle. The series’ anarchic attitude, with its mixture of anything-goes fantasy and laidback tone, proves a perfect match for him. Transformation is a common motif in Yuasa’s work: think on the demon possessions in Devilman Crybaby, the aforementioned journey in “Happy Machine,” or the mermaids shapeshifting in Lu Over the Wall. This episode takes that idea and runs with it.
The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl
A night out on the town becomes an epic odyssey in Yuasa’s latest feature. A guy trying to confess his love to his classmate is beset by all manner of outrageous obstacles, from a mystical spicy soup competition to an elaborate Hamlet-esque play-within-a-film. Along the way, we’re introduced to a host of idiosyncratic figures, like a maniacally scheming student-body president or a washed-up salaryman.
That’s another key to Yuasa’s movies. Plenty of artists can conjure “crazy” imagery, but few can do so in the service of engaging characters. Yuasa’s outsized action revolves around genuinely human concerns, and that’s why he’s not just another vivid artist, but a beloved one.
Dan Schindel is an editor, writer, and critic based in Los Angeles.