In the 2000s, Masaaki Yuasa was the best anime director that nobody had heard of, his works beloved by the few who saw them but nearly impossible to watch through legitimate channels. This past decade, Yuasa finally earned the wider recognition he deserved and had a bona fide mainstream breakthrough hit with Devilman Crybaby.
Yuasa’s 2004 feature film directorial debut, Mind Game, was both a delightful burst of psychedelic creativity and the opposite of anything remotely commercial. Despite high praise from animators like Satoshi Kon and Billy Plympton, it remained unreleased in America until a brief Netflix deal in 2016 and an eventual theatrical release from GKIDS in 2018. Yuasa’s next two TV series, the monster romance Kemonozume in 2006 and the adorably dark cyberpunk series Kaiba in 2008, also failed to make waves in Japan and were mostly ignored by international fandom (Discotek eventually licensed Kaiba in 2017, Kemonozume still has no US release).
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In 2010, Yuasa’s next TV series became his first to gain some exposure in the era of legal streaming. A fast-paced Groundhog Day riff dealing with bad decisions made at college, The Tatami Galaxy wasn’t a mainstream hit (FUNimation wouldn’t give it a physical media release until just this year), but it gave more audiences a chance to discover Yuasa’s comedic sensibility and artistic experiments outside of traditional “anime” art styles. The cult hit is making many “Best Anime of the Decade” lists for good reason.
Yuasa broke new ground for the business of anime in 2013 when his short film Kick-Heart became the first ever crowd-funded anime. Raising $201,164 on Kickstarter for a 12 minute short about a kinky wrestler in love with a nun, Yuasa was able to harness his growing cult appeal for a successful production. Other studios like TRIGGER would follow suit in crowdfunding niche projects. Kick-Heart even aired on Toonami, and soon after, a lot more Yuasa animation was seen on Cartoon Network and Adult Swim; In 2014, he served as a guest director on episodes of both Space Dandy and Adventure Time.
At this point in his career, Yuasa was regularly jumping from studio to studio. Mind Game was at Studio 4C, his next three shows were at Madhouse, Kick-Heart was at Production I.G. In 2013, Yuasa and his producer, Eunyoung Choi, decided to start their own animation studio, Science Saru. The studio is smaller, one of the rare anime studios focused on working on Flash Animation. Its first productions in 2014 were the Adventure Time episode “Food Chain” and, in collaboration with Tatsunoko, the excellent sports anime series Ping-Pong: The Animation.
Science Saru released two new movies, Yuasa’s first since Mind Game, in 2017: Lu Over the Wall and The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. The former’s a quirky, kid-friendly adventure about a music-loving mermaid; the latter’s a wild drinking comedy set in the same world as The Tatami Galaxy. Both films were critically acclaimed, Night is Short slightly more so, and received US releases from GKIDS in 2018.
Also in 2018, Yuasa and Science Saru made Netflix’s first ever original anime series, Devilman Crybaby. Taking an already classic Go Nagai manga and upping both the stylization and the brutality to make it as shocking and memorable today as the original was in the ’70s, Devilman Crybaby was a more than deserving winner of Crunchyroll’s Anime of the Year award. For once, Yuasa had a hit show that not only anime fans were talking about, but the mainstream press was as well!
Since the success of Crybaby, Yuasa’s team at Science Saru has been extremely busy. This year they made another feature film, Ride Your Wave, which will hit American theaters next year. They are also producing Super Shiro, a spin-off of the popular Crayon Shin-Chan series where Yuasa got his start as an animation director. Next year, they have two new series: the anime-about-anime Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and a Netflix adaptation of the classic earthquake novel Japan Sinks. Even further into the future, Yuasa’s committed to directing Inu-Oh, a musical biography of a 14th century Noh actor.
Masaaki Yuasa is one of those rare directors who hasn’t made a bad anime yet. If you care about the art of animation and are interested in works different from your typical anime, try to watch as much of his work as you can.
KEEP READING: Ride Your Wave Will Fill Your Heart – And Break It
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