Words by Dan Schindel
Masaaki Yuasa doesn’t carry himself like one of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed animators. The 57-year-old’s penchant for beanies has become almost a trademark, and a sign of his easygoing nature. But that relaxedness belies a remarkably deep and sharp creative mind. If you ask the anime director about his influences, you’ll hear a wide range of shout-outs. His most recent feature film, Inu-Oh, tells a tale set against the backdrop of Japan’s Muromachi period (specifically, the late 1300s) and the development of noh theater. Noh is a heavily tradition-bound and stately art form, characterized by a grandiose acting style meeting a minimalist design sensibility. Inu-Oh subverts any sense of minimalism, however, in the way it imagines these performances. Here they are elaborate events that combine the playing of biwa (wooden lutes, which feature heavily in traditional Japanese music) with glam rock, pop, hair metal, and other sensibilities. It’s a thrilling melting pot of anachronisms.
“I was inspired by many different things: hip-hop and shuffle dance, gymnastic moves, ballet, M.C. Hammer, Jackie Chan, Carl Lewis’s jump.”
Talking to Yuasa over Zoom with the aid of a translator, he cites a diverse grab bag of reference points for the musical sequences. “I was inspired by many different things: hip-hop and shuffle dance, gymnastic moves, ballet, M.C. Hammer, Jackie Chan, Carl Lewis’s jump. I also incorporated classical music,” he says. “I try to incorporate the history of anything that existed until now. Even Singin' in the Rain was an influence.”
In an industry increasingly dominated by the kind of artistic shortcuts that digitalization affords, Yuasa’s projects stand out for being so, well, animated. That philosophy has steered him from his days as an animator even before he was a director, and has been especially evident in the works produced by Science SARU, the studio he co-founded with Eunyoung Choi in 2013. Choi is another veteran animator who’s literally well-traveled in the field, having grown up in South Korea and studied in London before moving to Japan to enter the anime industry. Prior to forming Science SARU, the pair had collaborated frequently over the years, working in various capacities on each other’s projects.
Yuasa’s love of movement is evident in the features, shorts, and television series he has directed. You can see it when the title character of Inu-Oh first dances to the tune of a biwa player—the frame focuses on his feet, and each step is meticulously rendered and different. Dance and music factor heavily into multiple Yuasa titles. In Lu Over the Wall (2017), a mermaid’s song compels all who hear her to break into a synchronized dance, a dizzyingly fast and energetic high-step. In Ride Your Wave (2019), a bereaved young woman discovers that singing the song that she and her recently deceased boyfriend had chosen as “theirs” causes his spirit to appear.
Across these works, music speaks to people’s primal emotions, acting as a force to bring together individuals and whole communities alike. It was important, then, to make the performances in Inu-Oh feel like fully realized affairs. While their “special effects” (shadows on canvases, elaborate puppetry, fireworks) are elaborate, all are grounded and could conceivably be realized in a live-action film without any CGI. “I wanted to think that the people in the past would be able to pull it off with the materials they had, and I had to make sure to depict it in a realistic way,” Yuasa explains. “I also thought about how the crowd would've probably seen the performances, and incorporated that. Noh is really based on how the audience interprets it.” That subjective mode undergirds a lot of the more fanciful touches in his style. In his short film Kick-Heart, a professional wrestler’s love for his opponent is demonstrated when her body slams are illustrated with a precious bell chime.
Yuasa is more than just a song and dance guy. He’s worked on everything from science fiction (Kaiba and Space Dandy) to dark fantasy (Devilman Crybaby) to college hijinks (Tatami Galaxy or The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl) to the frankly unclassifiable (his dizzying experimental epic Mind Game). The unifying factor across these projects is a fascination with motion and transformation. “Food Chain,” the episode of Adventure Time he guest-directed, has the protagonists continually shapeshift into different plants and animals as each one is in turn consumed by something further up the food chain. In Ping-Pong: The Animation, the seemingly repetitive act of playing ping-pong is imagined via every possible abstraction. In one memorable sequence, when the character Kazuma lands a powerful strike, the ball becomes a beam of energy that first resembles a dragon and then Kazuma himself, his ferocity as a competitor made viscerally tangible.
The greater acceptance [Inu-Oh] receives from the public, the more he becomes physically “beautiful” to them, in a poignant metaphor for how marginalized people sometimes can only gain acceptance through sheer force of talent.
This motif manifests in Inu-Oh as well. The titular character has had to conceal his appearance since birth because a curse has left him with scaly skin, mismatched limbs (one arm extends out 10 feet), and a face that terrifies people. But as he dances to the music of biwa player Tomona, he discovers that after certain performances, his body becomes more normal. The greater acceptance he receives from the public, the more he becomes physically “beautiful” to them, in a poignant metaphor for how marginalized people sometimes can only gain acceptance through sheer force of talent.
Yuasa’s works often feature such protagonists on the margins—notably, Science SARU productions have been at the forefront of diversifying casts in recent anime, with shows like Japan Sinks 2020 and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! including mixed race protagonists, as well as implicitly or openly queer characters. (There’s a strong queer undercurrent to Inu-Oh’s depiction as well; he’s even voiced by nonbinary musician Avu-chan.) Tomona is blind, and among the film’s other formal experimentations, it takes time to depict the world from his point of view, via sequences which only visualize things around him as he becomes aware of them due to his sense of hearing or touch. Yuasa references how meticulous research was involved to ensure the animators rendered his experience accurately.
That level of care extends to Yuasa’s collaborative process. In an unusual process, on Inu-Oh, the music for the performances was not fully orchestrated before the sequences were animated. “I wanted to do some sort of tough rock and roll, but also use traditional Japanese instruments, but that wasn't conveyed well. [Composer Yoshihide] Otomo didn't quite understand what I was talking about. He wanted to know what the dance was going to be like, but I felt like I needed music to think of the dance.” As a solution, Yuasa put together a mix of songs that conveyed the mood he was going for, featuring the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Queen, Deep Purple—and created storyboards based on it. Upon turning those over to Otomo, “He came out with a perfectly composed piece. I had the actors add their input, and adapted my animation around it. Then he reworked the music and rhythms, and it came back to me; it kept going back and forth.”
Anime is more globally popular now than ever before. Amid so many shows and films, it’s this kind of attention to detail that makes Yuasa’s work indelible and distinct.
Published on October 13, 2022