This Friday, Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall, winner of the Noburō Ōfuji Award at this year's Mainichi Film Awards in Japan and the Best Feature Film winner at last year's Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, will be releasing in select theaters.
Writing about the director, screenwriter, storyboarder, and character designer in March, Vulture film critic Emily Yoshida described Yuasa as “one of the most exciting, multi-talented, and prolific creators working in animation right now.” It’s hard to dispute this claim. Just take one look at the early-Disney/Philip K. Dick world of his 2008 classic Kaiba; the surreal and profoundly in-depth surroundings that make up The Tatami Galaxy; the psychedelic, extremely physical and romantic Kick Heart; the kinetic, high-stakes duels found in one of the best anime series of the decade, Ping Pong: The Animation; and the standalone episodes he directed for Adventure Time, Samurai Champloo, and Space Dandy -- and it becomes clear that a Yuasa project will be unlike anything currently being produced in animation either in his native Japan or around the world.
While maintaining an idiosyncratic vision and reputation for producing art that goes against every trend of commercial anime, Yuasa’s work never sold Blu-rays in high numbers in Japan, his films never dominated the Japanese box office — Walk on Girl was the 96th highest-grossing film of 2017 — and because of his contrarian take on anime, his work was mostly absent on Western television, screening mainly in animation festivals. There’s a reason he went to Kickstarter to produce Kick Heart (the first anime production to do so): Even though by 2010, having already won a Ōfuji Award for his debut feature Mind Game and become a multi-Japan Arts Media Festival Grand Prize winner, he couldn’t get funding for it. It’s only in the last few years that Yuasa enthusiasts have been able to see some of his series on streaming services like Crunchyroll and Funimation.
While he’s still not as recognizable as Hayao Miyazaki or even Hideki Anno and Makoto Shinkai to the average anime fan, Yuasa, at 52, with almost three decades of experience working in animation, is currently having the biggest year of his career out here in the West.
It all started in January, where the Fall anime season was coming to a close and fans were eagerly anticipating the shows that would come with the Winter season, shows that included a new Cardcaptor Sakura, Darling in the FranXX (a collaboration between A-1 Pictures and Studio Trigger), and A Place Further Than the Universe, an original slice-of-life anime from Madhouse. But a week before the Winter Anime Season officially began, Netflix, which has been investing heavily in anime — sometimes to the ire of fans, as the streaming service holds on to certain titles such as Kyoto Animations' Violet Evergarden and Trigger’s Little Witch Academia — produced and released the first Yuasa TV series in four years: the epic, brutal, graphic, unforgiving, and spectacular DEVILMAN crybaby.
A reimagining of the classic 1970s Go Nagai manga, which has seen a number of anime adaptations, and backed by an absolutely earth-shattering soundtrack that’s so good it is an outright tragedy that it isn’t available on Spotify (get on that, Netflix!), crybaby became the first big talking point of the year in the anime community.
Writing for The Verge, Megan Farokhmanesh says that the violence, which is as graphic as it is silly, is “impossible to look away from,” and that the film's story “moves from jawdropping to heartbreaking at a moment’s notice.” In her review for Geek.com, Brittany Vincent described the series as a “rollercoaster of unexpected emotion, violence, sex, self-discovery, and coming to terms with yourself,” before proclaiming it a masterpiece.
The series even spawned its own meme with fans putting the classic Devilman theme over old TV shows and movies. Since Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, there’s no telling exactly how many people actually watched DEVILMAN crybaby, but judging by its immediate reaction, it may be Yuasa’s most popular work to date.
Crybaby would not be the last we saw of Yuasa’s twisted imagination; three days before DEVILMAN was unleashed on us, animated film distributor GKIDS announced that it picked up distribution rights to three of Yuasa’s features: Mind Game, Lu, and Walk on Girl. Mind Game, Yuasa’s first feature, was previously only available on DVD outside of the U.S. The cult classic was given a revival run in select theaters around the country and shown on Cartoon Network for the first time — in Japanese with English subtitles — as part of the Adult Swim’s annual April Fools' Day lineup, following a preview of the highly anticipated third FLCL series.
Mind Game wasn’t the only older work of Yuasa’s that got a second life. Back in March, Viewster, a streaming service based in Switzerland, announced that Kaiba, which premiered in Japan a decade ago, would now be available to watch via streaming for the first time, giving people who were perhaps not familiar with Yuasa (or who may not even have watched anime at the time) the opportunity to see one of the most unique series of the new millennium.
People who have just been introduced to Yuasa because of DEVILMAN may be confused at previews for Lu Over the Wall, a story that involves a teenager living in a quaint fishing village who develops a deep friendship with a mermaid named Lu. It’s clearly the sweetest and most family-friendly project Yuasa has ever worked on, with Lu (super-small with lime green, translucent hair that has little yellow fish swimming inside it) being the cutest, most overtly innocent character ever to appear in a Yuasa production.
Now, just because it’s super cute and won’t give your younger siblings (and probably you) nightmares doesn’t mean that Yuasa made any compromises when it comes to his style. Lu features many moments where the hyperactive camera and character movements that Yuasa is known for appear throughout the film. It may be a little long, but even if you’re a full-on adult and can see where the story is going and think that you’ve seen everything Yuasa can show you animation-wise, he wallops your eyeballs with another display of visual dexterity that will leave both your eyes and mouth wide open.
Lu is one of two films Yuasa directed last year. The other, The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl (winner of Best Feature at the 2017 Ottawa International Animation Festival and Animation of the Year at the Japan Academy Prize ceremony in March), is a film set in the world of his 2010 masterpiece, The Tatami Galaxy, and may see a release later this year.
The two films are interesting entries into Yuasa's career, as they will provide his devotees in the U.S an insight into what we can expect from him in the future, now that he’s not only a director and animator, but also the head of a studio.
Yuasa founded Science SARU in 2013 alongside frequent collaborator Eunyoung Choi. According to the studio's official site, the goal of the studio is to produce “high quality animation for internet, television and film production and offer their services world wide.” The first three releases — DEVILMAN, Lu, and (if it’s any indication considering the world it will take place in) Walk on Girl — are all high achievements that make me believe that Yuasa, who has crafted a number of masterpieces already, is still in his prime, with many more high-quality productions ahead of him.
With anime becoming more accepted by mainstream audiences, along with his relationships with the likes of Netflix, Cartoon Network, and GKIDS, I’m not saying Yuasa will be the most recognizable anime director after Miyazaki, but considering the level he's at, he may turn out to be the most important one.