Now an animation veteran, with 17 years in the business, Masaaki Yuasa still looks young enough, acts deferential enough and dresses down enough to be mistaken for a rank-and-filer. Instead, he is a rising industry star hailed for his work on the “Crayon Shinchan” franchise, the nearest Japanese animation has come to “The Simpsons,” and his directorial debut, “Mind Game,” which is to most Japanese feature animation what extreme skiing is to a schuss down a bunny slope.
In person, Yuasa was comfortable enough with his new role of director, but that of interviewee seemed to strike him as a bit odd — though maybe that was the fault of his interviewer. He was polite and forthcoming enough — and relieved when the last question came. (True, I was the last in a day-long media procession.)
You use live actors in certain scenes of the film in a way reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” — but unlike anything I’ve seen in Japanese animation.
I’ve heard of “Waking Life,” but I haven’t seen it. The story in the original comic deals with some pretty deep themes, but it’s drawn in a rough style, very much like a gag manga. But it’s hard to get that rough feeling into an animation. Usually in animation you have several people working on an image and they tend to make it cleaner as they go along. When I thought about how to preserve that rough feeling, I came up with the idea of throwing various styles into the mix, almost at random. It may sound strange, but I wanted it to look as though we hadn’t worked very hard on it, though of course we had.
That look goes with the characters, especially the hero, who is something of a rough type himself (laughs).
We wouldn’t get that feeling across if we were to draw him too cleanly. We’d lose the atmosphere. Also, if we had made the film as a conventional cel animation, people wouldn’t come to see it. For adults an animation that’s a little offbeat is more interesting.
Kazuaki Kiriya, the director of “Casshern,” told me something similar. He went for a rough look partly so he could express everything he wanted to express on a limited budget. If he had tried for a smooth Hollywood look, he said he wouldn’t have been able to do that.
That was true in my case as well, but the look also suited the film. Instead of telling it serious and straight, I went for a look that was a little wild, a little patchy. When I’m trying to convey a theme that’s a bit embarrassing, a bit hard to say straight, I tend to end up with that sort of look. Of course the budget was low, so that was also a factor.
A lot of recent animation, like “Steamboy,” is done to perfection and costs a ton of money to make. When you make something like that, you’re under a huge amount of pressure. I couldn’t handle that [sort of job] and I know it.
But when you’ve been given a small budget, you just figure out how to make the most interesting film you can with the money you have. You can take a more casual approach.
Also, I think that Japanese animation fans today don’t necessarily demand something that’s so polished. You can throw different styles at them and they can still usually enjoy it. In the past, if you had used different styles, you would have pulled [the audience] away from the story. Audiences today don’t mind it as much when the style changes. They may feel a bit of discord, but it doesn’t take them away from the story.
The film is based on a manga, but it’s not a best seller. In other words a lot of the audience will not be very familiar with the material. Did that allow you to express yourself a little more freely?
That’s right. I didn’t have to draw [the film] to look exactly like the original [manga]. So in that sense I was free to express myself. At the same time, I respected the original story — I didn’t depart from it. But even though I was using the same [story as the manga], I tried to make it my own. For me, that sort of approach is the best.
“Waking Life” has its comic moments, but mostly it’s a serious examination of the meaning of life, the universe and so on. By contrast, “Mind Game” has a lighter, more playful feeling. God appears, but it’s not the sort of god most Westerners would recognize.
I would be embarrassed to talk about that sort of thing seriously. I’d rather joke around (laughs). For me the best way is to allow the audience to enjoy themselves while giving them something to think about. In other words, film as entertainment.
The god changes to reflect changes [in the hero’s] own feelings. That’s one of the themes — that the world reflects your own feelings toward it. Even when you’re in a negative situation, if you think about it positively, your feelings will change as well.
When Nishi and the others end up in the whale, the obvious Western comparison is Pinocchio, but you took that situation in a very different direction. Were you trying to avoid comparisons or just following the manga?
That’s in the manga. It’s like a memory you might have from when you were 4, when you imagine the inside of a whale as being like a shell. When you’re inside [a whale] nothing from the outside can attack you. It’s fun, to be shut in like that, but you also can’t stay there forever. The outside may not be as fun, but you have to go there.
You make it look inviting. Nishi and the others don’t have to work, their food comes to them. It’s something like being at a seaside resort (laughs).
Yes, it is enjoyable for them. When they’re inside they start to remember things they had forgotten on the outside. They figure out what’s important to them. They’re eating, sleeping — and remembering everything, including the dreams they had when they were children. For the first time, they think things through. What are our dreams made of? That sort of thing.
So they seem to be drifting along, but inside they’re thinking. Then they start to remember the outside and decide to escape. I had discussions with my staff about this part — some of them didn’t want [the characters] to leave (laughs). They wanted them to stay inside. I thought that was really strange: If it were me I’d want to escape (laughs). But I had to give them a reason for leaving. What I said was that, basically, the world is an interesting place with various types of people. That was the reason for leaving.
They don’t mind being inside, but they finally decide they want to leave. And when they do, they’re like Pinocchio — changed.
Exactly. Pinocchio was reborn, wasn’t he? In that sense so is Nishi.
But the way they work together to escape struck me as Japanese somehow. You don’t see that in the Disney version.
That’s true. When they enter [the whale] and after, they receive help in various ways, from the fish and so on. And they’re also able to escape with various kinds of help. I wanted to make it tough for them, though. I didn’t want them to have an easy time getting out. The pain is the price they have to pay. When they leave this little enclosed world, where they’ve enjoyed themselves, they let in all this culture and history. They endure a lot of suffering. They have to overcome all that to escape.
And yet when Nishi does get out, he leaps over ships, bridges and buildings. I wanted to tell him it was all right to stop (laughs).
When he gets out he has this very positive feeling that he can do anything. The world puts various kinds of obstacles in your way — it’s not all fun and games. But you can find the strength to overcome that. You may face various global problems as well, such as war, but you can find the strength to live with them as well.
This particular job is your first feature film as a director. Are you satisfied with it, or are there more obstacles you have to overcome?
I still have some areas where I want to learn more. In this film I worked in areas that were my strengths. I’d like to learn more in areas that aren’t my strengths.
“Mind Game” is more on the experimental, cult side than the commercial film side.
I wanted to make something that would be experimental, but also popular entertainment. I’m satisfied with it, but next time I want make something that has a wider appeal, in a different way. That’s why I want to learn more.
I heard that the company is thinking of inserting the faces of foreign actors for the overseas version. How do you feel about that?
It’s sad if the actors who appeared [in the original] are not [in the overseas version]. But that may be necessary to get foreign audiences to see it. There is also text that may have to be redone. But I want a lot of people to see and know about the film, so I don’t mind if it’s changed somewhat. The ideal would be to have a lot of people see it the way it is, but that may be difficult.
The storyline, though, reminded me of “Pulp Fiction,” the way it doubled back on itself at the end.
Yes, but it doesn’t double back in a complicated way. It’s simple — ta da! — and you’re back at the beginning.
I got the feeling that things had come full circle, but that Nishi had changed. There’s a sense of liberation in the final images. A feeling that life is wonderful.
I’m glad you feel that way. In any case, he goes inside [the whale], suffers, then comes out and — then pow! — the world opens up for him. He finds out that the everyday lives of ordinary people are wonderful, even if they’re not doing anything so great. Some images in the film may seem to say something negative — that his life from now on will be a waste, but I also wanted to say that if he lives life to the fullest it’s not that terrible at all. It may look bad from the outside, but for him it’s not bad at all.
In the beginning, Nishi is really miserable — he can’t say what he feels and he can’t tell the girl he likes that he doesn’t want her hanging out with another guy.
But by the end he has grown beyond that.
Exactly. From now on he’ll be different.
But it’s hard to imagine a sequel.
That’s right. I just hope that he will try hard to live his life [to the fullest].
So now you’re interested in making a more commercial film.
Yes, something that a lot of people will enjoy.
But I hope that, once in a while, you’ll make this type of film as well.
I’ll try (laughs).