Masaaki Yuasa is one of the most exciting directors working in Japanese animation today, with a three-decade career behind him. Yet until last year, you may not even have heard of him. Long the filmmaker of choice for discerning anime fans, the 53-year-old has had a significant profile boost over the past 18 months, releasing two theatrical features — “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl” and “Lu Over the Wall” — and a Netflix series, “Devilman Crybaby,” which secured his biggest audience to date.
Yuasa is the featured anime director at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, following in the footsteps of Hideaki Anno, Mamoru Hosoda and his old pal Keiichi Hara. The program includes all three of his feature movies, starting with 2004 cult favorite “Mind Game,” as well as an all-night “Devilman” screening and an anthology of animated shorts from throughout his career.
The earliest are two musical sequences from the 1992 film “Chibi Maruko Chan: My Favorite Song,” including a joyous, dream-like road-trip set to the strains of Eiichi Otaki’s “Drag Race 1969.” Yuasa worked as a key animator on the movie, and was responsible for directing and animating these segments. He recalls the film’s directors and “Chibi Maruko-chan” creator Momoko Sakura, who wrote the screenplay, being enthusiastic about his off-the-wall approach.
“It was a lot of fun to make, and the staff were really happy with how it turned out,” he says. “I didn’t have much confidence in my work until then, so that was a massive boost for me.”
Music plays a vital role in Yuasa’s work, and has supplied some of the most arresting moments in his oeuvre: a love-making scene in “Mind Game,” where a couple morphs into insects and blurs of impressionistic color to a gentle bossa nova backing; a chorus of table tennis balls segueing into a Steve Reich-style orchestral piece in “Ping Pong: The Animation”; an outbreak of mass dancing in “Lu Over the Wall,” all Tex Avery-style rubber limbs contorting to a bouncy techno soundtrack.
These scenes may look like they’ve been edited to the music, but he says that isn’t always the case: Sometimes the images, or even the voice actors’ performances, will dictate the shape of the final sequence. For Yuasa, adaptability is an important part of the creative process.
“The more work I’ve done, the more I’ve come to understand what you can express with images and with color,” he says. “There are lots of different parts: scenery, sounds, music. I try to make everything link together in a natural way.”
After an unhappy stint as a staffer at the Ajia-do Animation Works studio, Yuasa spent most of the 1990s freelancing, mastering the various aspects of animation as he worked on everything from the “Crayon Shin-chan” series to Isao Takahata’s “My Neighbors the Yamadas.”
When he made his feature debut with “Mind Game” in 2004, it felt like the arrival of a major new talent. The film compensated for its limited budget with a boundless visual imagination and giddy, free-associative approach to storytelling. Despite patchy international distribution, it developed a strong following overseas (the film finally got a proper Blu-ray release in the United States earlier this year).
“Even though ‘Mind Game’ didn’t have the sales, I’ve met a lot of people overseas who’ve seen it,” he says. “It’s probably the most-watched thing that I’ve made—well, apart from ‘Devilman.'”
“Mind Game” beat Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” to win the animation prizes at the Mainichi Film Awards and Japan Media Arts Festival, but it would be over a decade until Yuasa released another movie. Instead, he chose to focus on TV, starting with “Kemonozume,” a tale of romance and flesh-eating monsters that was broadcast on satellite channel Wowow in 2006.
“I thought I could go on an adventure with TV,” he says. “I was an animator by trade, and I made ‘Mind Game’ without having much experience of directing, so I wanted to learn more. I originally thought that if I made something I found interesting myself, everyone else would find it interesting too, but I discovered that often wasn’t the case.”
After setting out to make three TV shows, he ended up doing four: “Kemonozume” was followed by another Wowow series, “Kaiba,” before he switched to terrestrial broadcaster Fuji TV for “The Tatami Galaxy” and “Ping Pong: The Animation.” He also directed a memorably weird episode of the Cartoon Network series “Adventure Time” in 2014, and the crowd-funded short “Kick-Heart” in 2012, both of which will be screened at TIFF.
“I learned more about storytelling and the production process while I was making those, but the thing that interested me most was how people were actually watching,” he says. “2D animation isn’t like a novel or a manga. I tried to imagine how people watched things, and what kinds of expectations they had. When I started to get a handle on that, I felt ready to make another film.”
Although he says he doesn’t watch TV anime much any more, he keeps up with the latest theatrical features, and not just for recreational purposes.
“When a film is a hit, I’ll really pick it apart,” he says. “What’s it doing right? What do the people watching it like about it? If there’s something I can take away from that, I’ll try to incorporate it into my work.”
When Yuasa returned to features last year, it was with not one but two projects, released just six weeks apart in Japan. “The Night is Short, Walk on Girl” — a surrealist romantic odyssey set over a seemingly endless night in Kyoto — was adapted from a novel by “The Tatami Galaxy” author Tomihiko Morimi. The more family-friendly “Lu Over the Wall,” based on an original screenplay by Yuasa and scriptwriter Reiko Yoshida, followed the exploits of a shy high school student who’s befriended by a music-loving mermaid.
Yuasa says the lessons learned from his TV years are evident in the scripting for both films.
“In general, I made things easy to understand: Rather than assume it was enough just to show something, I’d also mention it in the script, and try to take things slowly,” he says. “Well, ‘The Night is Short’ is really fast-paced, but I tried to explain things clearly and not use extreme layouts.”
With “Devilman Crybaby,” Yuasa’s unorthodox animation has found a new legion of fans. His adaptation of Go Nagai’s classic 1972 manga has drawn the biggest buzz of any of the anime series commissioned by Netflix so far, and 90 percent of the viewers were outside Japan.
“The biggest difference with Netflix is that people all over the world can watch something at the same time,” he says. “You can even watch all 10 episodes at once if you want to.”
The series features some extravagantly grotesque sex and violence, so it’s surprising to hear Yuasa say that he’s been restraining some of his darker impulses in his work.
“I love depicting the ugly side of humanity and all the unpleasantness in the world,” he says. “But I want people to be able to enjoy watching my work, so I try not to show that stuff.”
So what about all the gore in “Devilman Crybaby”?
“OK, I snuck a bit of it in there.”
The 31st Tokyo International Film Festival takes place between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3 at various locations in Minato Ward, Tokyo. For more information on screenings and related events, visit 2018.tiff-jp.net.
Exploring a long and animated career
The Tokyo International Film Festival celebrates the work of Masaaki Yuasa by screening the following films:
■‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’ (Oct. 26, 8:15 p.m.): An offbeat love story set in Kyoto takes place over a night of lively festivities.
■‘Devilman Crybaby’ (Oct. 26, 11:20 p.m.): A young man exists halfway between the demonic and the human. Can he save the world?
■‘Lu Over the Wall’ (Oct. 28, 10:05 a.m.): A shy teen strikes up a friendship with a music-loving mermaid.
■‘Mind Game’ (Nov. 1, 5:25 p.m.): This cult favorite tackles love, the yakuza and being eaten by a whale.
■Masaaki Yuasa Self Selection Short Films (Nov. 1, 8:30 p.m.): From “Chibi Maruko-chan” to “Kick-Heart,” eight works from throughout Yuasa’s career as an animator are highlighted.