The surreal destructiveness and magic of Japanese animator, Massaki Yuasa

The one characteristic which brings this Japanese animator so close to Dali's art is that his imagination is not a dream, it's real.


                            The surreal destructiveness and magic of Japanese animator, Massaki Yuasa

When one looks at a painting created by Salvador Dali, it often tends to leave behind a sense of distortion, but not in a bad way. Dali's surrealism takes one back to the unconscious corner of the mind which according to Freud gives birth to our intimate patterns of dreaming. While some might say that Dali's work is unreal and wild, the artist has been the most influential figure in 20th C.E. art and one of the most celebrated public personalities. As he would himself say, "the difference between me and the surrealists, is that I am a surrealist", Dali stood away from his contemporaries because of his use of extravagant colors to express the distortions of the mind. 

A similar characteristic is very much prominent in the works of Japanese animator, Masaaki Yuasa. Although some might point out that Yuasa's animations are at odds with what is considered to be higher art today, he has always added a very unique perspective to animation in an industry which has been increasingly traditional in the way it functions. Among his chief influences which include the American cartoonist Tex Avery and artist Salvador Dali, Yuasa manages to take inspiration from everything around him. As he said, "I often derive inspiration even from really modest visuals; a commercial, a cut from a movie, a movement from an anime as well as nameless flowers and grasses blooming on the road, clouds, stars, and moons in the sky. I’m also inspired by what I’m currently interested in and feeling. My humble wish for creating anime is to have common images, conversations, and scenes sublimed into art works.”

A lot like Dali, Yuasa tends to use vibrant colors to showcase the workings of the mind. (IMDb/ Getty Images)
A lot like Dali, Yuasa tends to use vibrant colors to showcase the workings of the mind. (IMDb/ Getty Images)

It is often assumed that animation is something for the kids. However, that concept changed completely for Yuasa when he noticed a long line of adults waiting to watch 'Space Battleship Yamato' (the film that beat Geroge Lucas' 'Star Wars' in the Japanese Box Office) when he was just 14-year-old. Yuasa himself has been a big fan of anime since he was a child and recalls being so crazy about one particular show (the name of which he cannot recall) that he would paint the characters and put them up all over the house. Some of his all-time favorite anime include, 'Doraemon', 'Obake no Q-Taro', and 'Hana no Pyun-Pyun Maru', which have helped frame Yuasa's own idea about animation and story-telling. 

Yuasa was quick to decide on his career in animation. He has earlier cited several prominent Japanese directors including the most celebrated director in animation Hayao Miyazaki whose works are often compared to Walt Disney's. Yuasa was greatly influenced by Miyazaki's 'Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro' and the TV series 'Golden Warrior Gold Lightan', during his teenage years. However, as the story of almost every middle-class family goes, Yuasa's parents wanted him to prioritize his university degree above everything else. He eventually went on to take up a degree in oil painting in the Department of Fine Arts of the Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka. However, it wasn't until he joined Ajia-Do that his actual journey as an animator began.

Even before beginning as a director, Yuasa took up a variety of roles while working at Ajia-Do (the studio behind the production of 'Doraemon') as an animator, storyboarder, character designer, and animation director. Juggling in between the varied roles helped Yuasa to put the utilization of his resources to the fullest. It was here that the truly versatile artist within him began to take shape, a particular feature of his which finds prominence in most of his works. Probably the one thing that sets him aside from his contemporaries is his consistent attempt to overthrow the age-old rules of animation and blend them together in a surrealistic manner in order to form a platform for his bizarre story-lines. 

For an instance, his 2004 movie 'Mind Game' was based on the abstract plot about a group of young adults who take part in flights of fantasy and imagination in order to escape their time while trapped in the belly of a whale. As much as the plotline resonates with surrealism, the artwork of the movie is equally hypnagogic. The palette of bright colors set against a darker background and the microscopic view of the ecstatic workings of the human mind together hint at Yuasa's tendency to involve fanatic characters and excremental humor. Yuasa shows it all- the cityscapes, the movements of the cells in the body, the distortion of body parts, and the twisting chronology of storytelling- with the least amount of inhibition that a person could possibly have. 

A lot like Dali, Yuasa's work is mostly delusional while maintaining sanity. His upcoming movie 'The Night is Short, Walk On Girl', which is set to hit theatres in the US on August 22, is based on a story by novelist Tomohiko Morimi. Unlike his previous Morimi adaptation, 'Tatami Galaxy', which was more about the perspective of a single character, 'The Night is Short' is an overlap of character perspectives. However, in all his works Yuasa has maintained one thing, as he says, " Feelings, human feelings, and emotions... I want them to be realistic. But the subtext -backgrounds, character looks- don’t need to be realistic." 

Yuasa can twist and wrap a storyline as though it is a foil. His characters, although appear to be extremely unreal, somewhere hit the chords with the actual turmoils of human emotion. This aspect of his finds prominence in Netflix's anime 'Devilman: Crybaby'. As much as the show is disturbing with its ruthless violence and uncensored nudity, (personally) it is probably the only anime which portrays Satan under the light of God. While the show has multiple dimensions to it, the one angle which anyone can easily relate to is the hidden desire of a human mind. That desire can be anything, from winning a race to kissing the one you love. Yuasa's subtle portrayal of man's desire in its ugliest form is both sensitive and factual.

Even in shows like 'Devilman' and 'Tatami Galaxy', Yuasa has portrayed a wide range of colors which in their own have helped set the mood of his works. As Yuasa mentioned, "I turned to high-contrasted colors while using neutral colors as well so that you sense freshness and vividness on the whole. I believe that things should be pleasant in principle and that is why shots get fresh and vivid in terms of color design when characters have a sense of pleasure in the story.” One of his films which almost feels like a splash of colors on screen is 'Lu Over the Wall'. Although narratively and structurally it isn't as strong as his earlier works, it certainly provides a pleasant visual experience for the viewers. 

Yuasa was shuffling between the productions of 'Lu' and 'The Night is Short', and both films have influenced each other as the director kept extracting and adding elements into each film. While explaining his tactic to handle the two, he explained, "It was when I was making Lu Over the Wall...that I got the green light to start the Night is Short project. I had to hurry and went into the pre-production phase while still making Lu because we hired freelance animators when we began with the production and we had to shift them to Night is Short before they could say goodbye to us.” 

With two very different visual styles and movements, Yuasa explained that it was basically the storyline which helped him keep a track of the two. "Lu over the Wall is a story about a mermaid who just wishes to make good friends with human beings. It’s about overcoming an irrational sense of discrimination and prejudice, about understanding and accepting alien creatures. Similarly, Night is Short is a fable about how you’ll only be happy when you wish for someone’s happiness and you’ll be unhappy when you just wish for your own happiness. Both movies depict how coming out of your shell could make things better. I love stories about opening up your heart," he said.

Yuasa says that he is an anime person. He does not understand art but he finds it interesting, and maybe it is his intrigue that creates a whole new world full of mazes and puzzles for the mind to resolve. If not anything else, it can be said of Yuasa that he is a man of resources. He recycles, bends, breaks, and again puts together leftover pieces to create every single aspect of a masterpiece. A lot like Dali who has always believed that there is no such thing as perfection, Yuasa uses imperfections to make a perfect portrayal of an imperfect human being. As bizarre as they may be, his portrayals are honest, authentic, and above all extremely entertaining. 

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.