Masaaki Yuasa is one of the best directors working in animation today. With his energetic and free-spirited approach to filmmaking, with animation that tilts the form to his side and dares others to be equally exhilarating and innovative, he has grown in popularity since his film debut, the gonzo Psychological game. In recent years, his projects have included the Nihilistic Fever Dream crybaby devilman for Netflix, the heartbreaking melodrama Ride your wavethe love letter to animation and creatives, Keep your hands off Eizouken!and the delicious read on the wall.
It is the latter that best defines the precursor of his last film, Inu-Ohthe period piece based on the book by Hideo Furukawa Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh. An explosive, coming-of-age rock opera, it’s unlike any other release this year, pushing the boundaries and engaging. We spoke to Yuasa about her penchant for infusing music into her films, her method of creating a visual style, and her appeal to this story.
Something I’ve always liked about your work is how often there is a musical side to your projects. Inu-Oh bends over further into the musical side – is it something you always knew you were interested in exploring?
I like to use musical elements in my films. I’ve always liked that. I think having musical elements in an animated movie always takes a lot of work, especially for this movie, but I’m glad it turned out that way.
Do you find that there are similarities between the scale and the stories of musicals and animated films?
Yeah, maybe they’re similar. I really thought it was different for this movie because originally I wanted to take the musical method where we have the song first and then start animating, but that didn’t work out. Because it’s not a full-fledged musical, I only have a few elements of one, so having the story told in a song was difficult and in the end, I ended up animating the storyboards of first, then I asked the composer to do the music and according to what he suggested, adapted my animation to match the music. So there was a lot of back and forth.
What first interested you in telling this story? Was it while reading the book? Or have you always wanted to tell a story from this period?
So a film company, Asmik Ace, the producers of the film, suggested that I adapt this novel about a Noh interpreter from the Muromachi era and make it into a film. For me, it was my first time working on a period piece as a director and it had been a while since I had worked on a piece even as an animator, so I thought that would be interesting. What piqued my curiosity was that I wondered how ordinary people, like peasants, how they lived and what their experiences were at that time.
A big theme of the film is the importance of remembering your history and where you come from, whether as an individual or a culture. How important was this idea to you?
Yeah, I thought in order to understand the people you’re living with right now or around, it’s really important to understand the past as well.
Throughout your career, you have explored many different genres and formats. Do you think there is a guideline that connects the stories you want to tell?
Usually when I’m working on something new, I try to find something new or refreshing for me. I try to work on things that I feel like I can discover something about, either inside or outside, and something that I can work on with pleasure.
Is it the same when you work on a film or on a television project?
Maybe, but I don’t wonder if it’s cinema or television. After working on Psychological game I worked on a few TV series to try to learn and grow. After this experience, I was able to work on cinema again. But then I wanted to go back to the TV series because I wanted to be able to incorporate what I learned working on the film, so I just try to incorporate and build on what I learn.
To go from looking something like Psychological gameWhere table tennisand now Inu-Oh, there are differences in style, but it’s always obvious that this is your project. How do you create a visual style for a project and is it always the same or does it change over time?
Absolutely – I had the opportunity to re-watch some of my old films and when I was working there I was thinking of doing something different but found that I was always reusing the same things or the same methods. Usually when I’m working on a film or a project, I try to decide which style best suits the context. Maybe what I understand or how I see the world comes from me. So maybe the things that come from me are still the same.
When I try to create things, I try to start from the point of view where I take something or someone that I don’t fully understand, it’s completely different from me. Then the whole process of creating something is to understand it. Ultimately, although I need to create something that I understand, ultimately. That’s how I approach my films.
Watch the trailer for Inu-Oh underneath.