The 31st Tokyo International Film Festival is just around the corner! It will once again be held in the Roppongi area between October 25th and November 3rd, screening dozens of acclaimed films from around the world. This year’s Focus on Animation retrospective is centered around the works of Yuasa Masaaki, the director known for hits like Devilman Crybaby, The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, and Lu Over the Wall. We were able to sit down with him and discuss his career and his process.
On His Personal History as an Animator
—How do you feel about your work being chosen as the Special Focus on Animation?
Yuasa: It’s a huge honor. There have been great people chosen as part of previous line-ups, and in comparison, I haven’t really done much, so I thought they asked me because someone else had turned down the offer. I hope to make good use of this opportunity because I want people to watch more of my work. I want people who haven’t seen my work before to check it out. For people who have already seen my work, there are older works that are hard to find that will also be screened. I think it’s a really good opportunity for that.
—What made you decide to become an anime director?
Y: I like drawing and I wanted to be an animator. I didn’t think about being a director at all. I didn’t think I was suited to be an animator, either, but I had a lot of fun drawing storyboards. I imagined animation was a really difficult profession and I wouldn’t be able to draw what I wanted. I thought that directors didn’t draw what they had in mind but for me, it’s easy to draw when it’s something that I came up with. But seeing my drawings move on a screen was extremely pleasant and made me feel great.
Everyone praised my first storyboard and enjoyed it a lot. Being able to create something that made me feel good and was enjoyed by other people made me think that this was the perfect job for me. That was the first time I thought that I might be suited for animation after all. After I finished the storyboards, I started thinking deeply about the story. If I was going to make a story, then I thought about how to present it, which made me figure that maybe directing would actually be fun. So I just happened to become a director.
About His Source of Ideas
—In all of your work, whether it be family-focused or aimed towards adults, there are always surreal scenes that stand out. Where do you get the ideas for those scenes?
Y: Just daily life. I don’t know if it’s surreal, but I always remember things that I find interesting and I think about whether I want to put it in my work. I think a lot about what to fill the screenplay and art with. I prefer working like I’m going to whip up the most delicious meal with the ingredients I have right then rather than make something that’s really dense. So I insert things that interest me or things that I like into the work that will also make it feel like a recent piece. I get ideas from anything. I come up with ideas when I take walks, or when I’m listening to music I’ll think about how the song’s composition or lyrics are interesting. If I’m reading a book, phrases will jump out at me and I think about how to turn them into visuals. Anything I find interesting can become animation so I want to put them into my work as much as possible.
—In a previous interview, you once said you get inspired by art. Are there any particular artists you’re interested in right now?
Y: Artists? Well, I tend to like older artists and their subjects. For example, Jakuchu (a painter from the Edo period) wasn’t that famous when I was little. I didn’t know about Varo, a surrealist painter, either. The first time I saw their works, I thought they were interesting. I always think about whether I can use their work and bring it into animation. This is a little old, but there’s a music composer named Tamio Okuda. He has a song called “Musuko,” meaning “son,” written from the point of view of a child and what he sees as he grows up, so I thought that was good. In the movie Mind Game there’s a scene about the future and what the characters will experience. Actually, there aren’t that many specific artists that I like. Instead, I get inspiration from things I like within other works. For example, if I watch a B-movie, it might be boring overall but a single scene might be really good, so I get inspired and think about how I can use it.
On His Work Process
Y: Lu Over the Wall, Kemonozume, and Kaiba are all originals. I always thought that I wanted to freely be able to make original stories, but if I can get enthralling works like Devilman, then it’s fun for me. When I work, I start with an interesting idea, so I look for the themes later on. Whether or not it’s an adaptation, how I interpret or feel about something is the most important thing. Of course, reproducing the original work is one of the themes of an adaptation, but it’s like an impression of how I viewed it. An original is something I made, but it’s the impression of how I find making a story interesting. If the original work is interesting, then the only thing that’s really different between an adaptation and an original story is how much time it takes to create. What I do isn’t different. I make adaptations as though it’s my story. I receive a lot of intriguing stories to adapt, though. For example, I can empathize a lot with the themes in Tomihiko Morimi’s work (**The Tatami Galaxy**) while Devilman Crybaby is shocking. Cat Soup and Robin Nishi’s Mind Game are two works I didn’t really understand at first, but I made them in a way that reflects how I understood them, so it doesn’t change my impression of them.
—Both The Night is Short, Walk On Girl and Lu Over the Wall were both released in 2017. How did you produce two movies at the same time?
Y: They were released in the same time period, but we didn’t make them at the same time. Previously, we would make one animation every two years, after which the staff would go their separate ways for a year before we would gather them back together. However, that meant a lot of the time, people wouldn’t be able to come back. We wanted to make it so that staff could work for us continuously instead, so we opened a studio. The production staff that worked on Lu immediately started on The Night is Short, Walk On Girl right afterward, like the very next day. Then when The Night is Short, Walk On Girl was done, Devilman started. That’s how we do things. Before then, we had a separate period for pre-production, but now it overlaps. When we were doing post-production on Lu, we had already started working on Devilman. Now we start making a new work as we do post-production on a previous work. In the past, people used to work like that, especially on TV series. Since shows change within a week when a season ends and a new one begins, the same staff used to work on different shows. However, now we don’t spend as much time on pre- or post-production. It’s not like I’m actively trying to fight my predecessors, but I do feel like I want to go against them. It’s difficult but I worked hard to set up things this way.
About His International Reach
—Many of your works are highly acclaimed, and among them, Devilman Crybaby especially became an international hit. How do you feel about that?
Y: I actually haven’t felt it personally. Netflix doesn’t release numbers, but I have been told that they’re pretty good. I think it’s one of my works that has been seen the most. It’s an adaptation of a manga by Go Nagai, so if the anime is good, then it should be an interesting watch. I’m glad that people are watching. I read Devilman when I was little, so I never imagined being able to make it into an anime, so making it and, furthermore, having it reach a wide audience, makes me happy.
—Is there any expectation for your other works to be available for people outside of Japan, similar to how Devilman is streamed on Netflix?
Y: I think Netflix is the fastest way for people to see my work, but on the other hand, only people who are subscribed to Netflix can watch it. I’d like for more people to be able to see my movies. I think that if I produce more and make more hits, then more people will be able to see them.
—Is there anything you can tell us about your new project?
Y: We have an announcement about that on October 28th, so please look forward to it! I spoke a little bit about it at Annecy in France, but I’m purposely not going to talk about it here so we can formally announce it later this month.
We’re really looking forward to hearing all about his new work!
For more pictures, check out the gallery below.
This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article.
Interview by Massiel
Photography by Hara