Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most inventive and celebrated anime filmmakers in the world. No two of his projects look alike, whether it’s the kinetic spirit of Ping Pong the Animation, the colorful fluidity of The Tatami Galaxy or the hyper-violent insanity of Devilman Crybaby.
You know when you’re watching a Masaaki Yuasa anime, precisely because it doesn’t look like anything else.
His latest is a period musical movie titled Inu-Oh. We caught up with Yuasa himself after the world premiere of Inu-Oh at the Venice Film Festival to talk about exploring the Muromachi period in the film (which is also the setting of Science SARU’s new anime The Heike Story!), making television anime vs. film and what’s next for him.
You always introduce musical moments in your work, why is that important to you?
Yuasa: Music is a very strong and important element in my work because it conveys a lot of energy and a lot of messages. So, I like to incorporate it into the story.
You’ve gone from film to TV back to film. Does the medium affect the way you approach working on a story?
Yuasa: The film world and the TV world are completely different, with TV projects being much longer, but of course you are working towards a shorter story. This means I need a lot of people who work joyfully for me in order to work on what I need them to work on.
On the other hand, movie making is something very personal, and for me, it’s better that I do most of the work. Of course, there are so many technical things or some other ideas where I do need external support, but the main part of the job is done by myself, so they’re completely different approaches.
All of your films and shows are so visually distinct and different, even if they are recognizably you. How do you set on the visual style of a project?
Yuasa: For Inu-Oh, the first inspiration was the original book The Tale of the Heike: Chapter of Inu-Oh but on the other hand, I wanted to understand how an impaired person who could not see properly might see the world. So we wanted the visual style to reflect how someone who is blind might understand the world and express their own world vision.
Then there’s trying to stay realistic to the Muromachi period. We made sure the streets and the surroundings were completely pitch black because they were no lights. But on the other hand, you could see maybe a storm brightening the sky so I tried to really imagine how it could have been back then.
You rarely incorporate violence in your work, but when you do it’s really impactful. What makes you decide whether to include violence or not?
Yuasa: So, there are two factors in the case of Inu-Oh. For one, in the Muromachi period, violence and death were very common. And it was, let’s say, lightly seen, it was not something very socially despicable, but a rather common thing to deal with in daily life. On the other hand, I didn’t want to show or draw Inu-Oh’s physical characteristics. And so, I rather used his typical silhouette to soften his physical uniqueness.
So basically, of course, I do not want to show these gruesome or cruel things. As a human being, I don’t want to show those things. But of course, as I try to convey a message to the audience it’s better to use maybe just a softer version of it.
So for example, in one of the first scenes, you can see the death of a man, but I try to use a long shot of him falling. In order to let the people understand that he was falling after dying, you see just a very a hint of a blood splashing from his body but it is a hint. But it’s a hint that conveys the right message.
This is, as the movie itself tells us, a chapter in history that most people don’t know about. Even in Japan, this is a story that has been forgotten.
Yet Science SARU is not only making this movie but also the TV anime The Heike Story. What makes this an important time period to explore?
Yuasa: This is not a real historical movie. So, for me, the historical part was not that important. It was just a glimpse, in order to get you to understand where we are in that era. But the main theme in Inu-Oh is this deep friendship between the two characters in the movie and how it was evolving in this Muromachi era.
Still, I wanted to be as accurate as possible for the Muromachi tradition, how they were in their habits, how they were living, how they were dressing, and all sorts of things. This was not only a period of war. There was great art as well. So, I wanted to be as accurate as possible for those kinds of details to show a different side of the story.
This movie has a lot of musical moments. How was the process of animating the music and the vocal performances?
Yuasa: It was a very particular way of producing a movie. It was almost completely reverse because we finished the entire movie without any music and then the music composer put on the music.
Our composer made the music according to what he was watching in the movie itself, so just the pictures and then after that, once the composer produced the music, then the voice actors came in to sing all the words and the songs.
I love that the performances were so different from one set or the other and you have pyrotechnics and elaborate sets. Did you base that on any real musicians?
Yuasa: It’s been told that the traditional Noh was a more musical-like performance. And then it was a combination of dance music and sometimes there were some comical sketches, and the location of the performance was an important part of it, so we put a lot of thought into the show aspect and the sets.
As for the dancing sequences, even nowadays, and also traditionally, Japanese people do not dance by using the lower end of the body. So we wanted to use some performances where the lower part of the body was used. For example, I’ve got a lot of inspiration from Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain or Michael Jackson and some street dance like breakdance or shuffle dance.
The movie also deals with preserving history and the way we tell the stories to keep people alive. Time and memory are prominent themes that come up again in your work, why is that something that is important to you?
Yuasa: So there’s nobody who’s evil. But the thing is that even the loss of spirit and the stories of the Heike and how history is told to the next generation is important because there’s somebody who understands and picks it up and tells it to the next generation.
So a core messaging in this movie is that we should do that even in our daily life. We should be aware of the people who are surrounding us, and to be aware of what they’re doing. So that’s the main message of this movie.
You announced your retirement last year, can you talk about it, why did you decide to retire?
Actually, I’m not retiring. But I am taking a break. I have been working too hard lately, so I need some time to study, and to prepare for my next step.