The Winter 2020 anime season’s coming to an end, and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! has just aired its last episode. If you’ve been staying updated every week on the hilarious and heartwarming story of Midori, Sayaka, and Tsubame as they fulfill their dream of creating an anime, then it must feel bittersweet to see Eizouken come to a close. But fear not! Because if Eizouken is the first time you’ve seen a Masaaki Yuasa-directed anime (and assuming you liked what you saw), then you’ve got a lot of catching up to do on the director’s delightfully eccentric and elaborately animated works.
Masaaki Yuasa is well-known for breaking norms in the anime industry, pushing the boundaries of the medium’s visual language with every new title. His works fearlessly veer off the tried and tested path, experimenting with plot structure, continuity, and even consistency in character design. Yuasa’s works walk the line between commercially enjoyable anime and high art, earning him praise from not just anime fans, but also the entire animation community. He’s even guest-directed episodes for Adventure Time and Samurai Champloo.
While Yuasa has credits with big-time anime studios and producers like Production I.G. and Madhouse under his belt, he’s been directing and creating anime with his very own studio, Science SARU, since 2013. With Yuasa having more creative freedom than ever, we can continue to expect great things from him and Science SARU, but for now, let’s take a look at the great works of his that we’ve had the privilege of enjoying so far.
Mind Game is Masaaki Yuasa’s directorial debut, and its title is every bit as descriptive as the experience it’ll bestow upon first-time viewers. Mind Game is a crazy joyride through various styles of animation and genre-bending storytelling that’ll leave you both confused and positively in awe every 10 minutes or so. It goes in directions you’d never expect, and it showed how the breadth of Yuasa’s creativity, as well as the sharpness of his wit, were present from the very start of his career.
Put extremely simply, Mind Game is a love story. It revolves around the protagonist, Nishi, who reunites with his first love Myon only to find out that she’s engaged to a man named Ryo. Nishi is assaulted with flashbacks of the time he had spent with Myon, and he rues the fact that she’s about to marry another man. The story takes a turn when the yakuza get involved with Nishi and Myon’s lives, and Nishi goes through a near-death experience that helps him find the resolve to fight for Myon. It’s a classic redemption story that’s told in ways you’d never expect.
You can log into Netflix and check the Anime category and see Devilman Crybaby among the several anime choices available on the streaming platform, but Devilman Crybaby is far from the anime you’re used to watching. It has all the essential trappings of an end-of-the-world genre anime: it’s dark, it’s violent, and everything goes up in hellfire, but its animation is done in such a unique, surrealist style that allows for its dark themes to be conveyed to the viewer in an elegant manner.
Sure, limbs will be ripped off, people will be eaten, and the world will end, but Devilman Crybaby strays from the easy path of ultraviolence and instead makes visual poetry of the story of Akira Fudo, a boy of exceptional kindness who suddenly comes to wield the strength of an all-powerful demon. Based on the 1970’s anime Devilman by Go Nagai, Devilman Crybaby is a Devilman for the new generation, and it makes use of its dark fantasy themes to explore real-world issues such as bigotry and the futility of war. It’s a beautiful anime that reflects on what it means to be human, and its most human character just so happens to also be a superhuman demon boy.
I like to refer to Kemonozume as the proto-Devilman Crybaby when it comes to animation, as both have a similar style of dark, crude-yet-elegant art that mixes surrealism with action. Kemonozume is Masaaki Yuasa’s take on the classic Romeo & Juliet plot, and it tells the story of Toshihiko and Yuka, two members of opposing clans who become forbidden lovers and must fight everyone else who’s keeping them from being together.
Toshihiko belongs to the next generation of the Kifuken clan, a lineage of warrior-hunters born and raised to slay man-eating beasts referred to in the anime as the “shokujinki” (“man-eating ogres”). Yuka is, you guessed it, a shokujinki. As Toshihiko and Yuka fall helplessly in love, their respective clans turn against them, and their lives are put in jeopardy as both the Kifuken and the shokujinki want them dead.
In this tale of forbidden love, Toshihiko and Yuka also seek to come to terms with their pasts, as they’ve already slain countless beasts and humans prior to meeting one another. Will their love prevail as they stand bloodied atop a mountain of corpses, or will they meet the same end as Romeo and Juliet? You’re gonna have to watch Kemonozume to find out.
If Haikyuu!! is a sports anime on steroids, Ping-Pong the Animation is a sports anime on LSD. It carries the signature surrealist style found in Yuasa’s works, and it turns the sport of table tennis into a grand, kinetic spectacle. Ping-Pong the Animation doesn’t shy away from depicting ping-pong in a larger-than-life way, but what grounds its story is the coming-of-age arcs of its main characters.
The story revolves around Peco and Smile, two childhood friends who go on to be star players in their high school’s table tennis team. Instead of focusing on the sport like most sports anime do, Ping-Pong the Animation uses table tennis to tell the story of Peco and Smile’s friendship as well as their individual outlooks on life. While the anime still possesses the same intense exchanges and action-packed scenes you’d expect from a sports anime, the scenes in which it truly shines are the ones in which Peco and Smile discuss and ruminate on the impact table tennis has made on their lives. It’s a sports anime that’s not afraid to take time fleshing out the emotional rollercoasters that its characters go through.
We are now at the last entry of this list, and I’ve saved the best for last. The Tatami Galaxy is a personal favorite of mine, and it’s the first Masaaki Yuasa anime I’d think to recommend to anyone. I’ve included the film Night is Short, Walk on Girl as part of this entry because it’s somewhat a spiritual sequel to The Tatami Galaxy, and it carries similar themes and characters. You can’t simply stop at watching just one of the two, you must watch both of them.
The Tatami Galaxy is a masterpiece of an anime that takes a story about young adult angst and presents it in a way like no other. The unnamed protagonist of The Tatami Galaxy (from hereon I will refer to as “Guy”) is a neurotic, average guy looking back on his college life, feeling disappointed that he had neither achieved anything great nor found the “raven-haired maiden” of his dreams. Guy starts blaming all his misfortunes on the club (or as we know it, “org”) he had joined in college, where he met a troublemaker named Ozu who ended up making his life a loveless and joyless mess.
After you finish the first episode where Guy enumerates his college misfortunes, the next episode starts at the same point as the first—time has been suddenly rewinded, and you’re now watching Guy in a parallel universe, joining a different org. As you continue watching The Tatami Galaxy, its structure reveals itself: every episode shows Guy joining a different org in his freshman year, only for each parallel universe to result in the same thing: he meets Ozu and ends up a regretful and spiteful Guy, whose pursuit of love never seems to come to fruition.
Early on, the viewer can see that Guy’s soulmate has been around him all along: it’s his quirky and charming underclassman, Akashi. But instead of taking a risk and confessing his feelings to her, Guy, in every parallel universe, chooses to avoid Akashi and continue pursuing futile paths of self-destruction, remaining fearful of risk and change. It becomes apparent that his endless limbo is the result of him choosing to blame his misfortunes on circumstance, rather than his own inability to go outside his comfort zone.
The Tatami Galaxy, at its heart, is an anime about confronting oneself and finding the resolve to make good changes. It’s an anime that makes you reflect on the countless paths you could have chosen in hindsight, just so it can tell you that the way to go is forward, and not back. It’s a life-affirming masterwork that everyone should see.
Oh, and once you’re done watching it, you should go watch Night is Short, Walk on Girl.
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