With the release of The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu Over the Wall – both were screened at Fantasia Film Festival, 2017 has already been a very busy year for Masaaki Yuasa. To celebrate both releases, we sit down with Yuasa to talk about his past, the present and the future.
[The translation is courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival.]
P-C: Can you tell us the story on how you became an animator?
Masaaki Yuasa: I loved animation so much since I was little. When I was getting too old for watching TV anime, the animation boom took place and I learned about the existence of the profession of animator. I wanted to be a cartoonist before that, but I realised that what I really wanted to be was an animator. I was probably about thirteen years old at that time.
P-C: What attracted you in making animation?
M.Y.: I really loved watching animation when I was little, I admired the simplicity of those pictures. When I was 4 or 5, I was drawing the pictures that I saw in cartoons or TV animation and it made me a bit popular at kindergarten. So I liked it.
P-C: You worked on a lot of different positions, before becoming a director. So I was interested in knowing how you ended up becoming an animation director?
M.Y.: At the beginning, I just wanted to be an animator and had no other thought. I didn’t know about making stories so I gave up to be a cartoonist I wanted to be before. But the more I drew, the more I felt like I was not good at it. Making storyboards was fun, but when I was drawing what the director asked me, I always felt like I was not good enough to respond to the demand. Even though the director said it was OK, I always felt a lot of stress. It was easier when I made a storyboard and drew it myself. I didn’t have any expectation from myself, so I made it with what I could draw. It was fun.
The first time I worked in that way was to make an animation for a piece of music. I really enjoyed making the storyboard, and I had a lot of compliments from others. What I was feeling I wasn’t good enough at suddenly turned to be my vocation. Since then, I started choosing the job of storyboards. But when I was making storyboards, I thought the director could work more freely, so I became a director. Now, as a director, I think I would be even freer if I wrote scripts myself, so I’m learning scenario writing.
P-C: The first animation studio you worked for was Ajia-do. How was working for them as your first experience? How did they – their way of approaching work for instance – influence you?
M.Y.: There was an animator I admired a lot in this company, Tsutomu Shibayama who created “Dokonjo Gaeru”. So I wanted to work under his direction but I didn’t get many opportunities to work with him directly… Oh, what was the question again?
The company was teaching drawing very well. There were many other good animators, even though I didn’t work directly with them often. So what I learned there was quite consistent and orthodox. They wanted us to draw well and fast. In basic style we check the pictures on films to test, but they didn’t do it often. We had to draw fast with intuition and memorise the move in our head like animators in the old days. However, there was a system for having my motion pictures checked by the people who drew the original pictures. They taught me a lot of things. And as soon as I learned new things I was transferred to another post. I never stayed in one position for long time and I had to keep learning for new positions.
If it were a company that does animations of robot or actions, I would have given up quickly. It was a good thing for me that we were doing simple animations there. Even though I couldn’t draw very well, they coached me. Each company has its own style. Ajia-do taught me pictures of daily life, so I learned orthodox things with them. People say I’m not an orthodox type, but basically I think in an orthodox way when I make animations.
P-C: After your work on Crayon Shin-chan, you received offers to work with Studio 4C, Production IG, JC Staff, even Ghibli. How would you say these experiences defined you as director?
M.Y.: The people I miss the most are those who I spent the difficult period with in ajia-do. The languages are a little different between studios; the creations and the ways of creating are also different. Even if staffs change regularly, there is a characteristic ambiance in each studio. I think it is like difference between countries. Something very common in one studio may not be common at all in another studio. Every time, I show my technique to the team, and we do it. It is similar to travel many countries in some way. I learn how they do, I explain how I do, and I get more people who I’m used to working with. I met many people, I adapted to their technique if it was good and I learned what I had to learn from them. I tried to do what I could do in those situations.
Often it didn’t go as I wanted when I was a director. Once, we made pictures for a piece of music but the music was changed before editing and dubbing. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t do anything, but my superior said “let’s adjust to it as much as we can” and he tried to match the pictures we drew to the music that was completely changed. I thought it was useless; I was full of anger for the people who changed the music and wasted what we had made. What I learned at that moment was that a director must do the best in any situation. It was the most important experience for me. Now, I try to have fun when I work. I want to adapt to any situation. I always anticipate that something may happen. I think in this way now because of these experiences.
P-C: You changed your drawing style a few times over the years, changing it, as you said before, to match the source material. With your more recent work, I feel like you’re gradually finding your own experimental style. Did you change your opinion on that styles should match the source material? If yes, how come?
M.Y: When I became an animator, I was told that an animator should be able to draw in any style so I was trying hard. Later, I realised that other animators have their own styles and they don’t change much for each creation. Even so, I thought it is the professional way to change for each creation. So I tried, but finally the fundamental things don’t really change. I was just trying different variations of my basic style.
When I started my career, I wanted to make something different to characterise my work. Now, oppositely, I respect the style of originals and try to do orthodox design. Probably I started making something that looks orthodox but is experimental in other ways.
P-C: Can you describe your animation style? What is typically yours and what do you aim to express with your style?
M.Y.: 3D became more popular than 2D. Some people think hand drawing is old-fashioned. Sometimes I thought live-action films or 3D animations are better than 2D. So I try to think of styles that we can only do in 2D. Basically, I want to express with pictures. There are words and stories, but I want pictures to represent them. In 3D animation, the shapes don’t change when it moves. I think in 2D animation, we should show what the author want to express by layout design, deforming shapes of objects or characters and changing how we draw background, etc.
P-C: You started your own production company, Science Saru, in 2014 with your close affiliate Eunyoung Choi. What where the main reasons that made you choose to found a production company?
M.Y.: First, I knew that running a 2D animation company was tough, so I wasn’t interested at all to have my own company. But there were two flash animators who wanted to do it with me, and these were people whom I had been willing to collaborate with. I thought it could be nice to have a studio to work with them.
Secondly, animator’s work was getting less interesting than before. It’s very systemised now and we have to satisfy the sponsor’s demand. It has always been a tough profession, but we were freer before. Big companies have no choice to have systems. We wanted to have a condition that allows us to be flexible, adjustable and make something we really want to make. This is why I started a company with Eunyoung.
P-C: Related to my previous question, can you explain, in more details, what are the pros and the cons of having your own production company?
M.Y.: When I want to try something, there are staffs that can do it. Also, we do flash animation so we can do all the process without consigning to other companies. I said earlier that when we work in different companies we have to start over every time to make a good team, but in my company I always work with the same staffs so the connection gets stronger and stronger, then I have less and less things to say. These are the advantages.
If there are other directors we’ll get more contracts, but I’m the only director so it is a little difficult at the moment.
P-C: With Ping Pong the animation – I still think it’s one of the best sports animations I ever saw, you adapted a manga. For this project, you were the series director and you did the series composition, screenplay, and storyboards. Can you tell us how you approached the manga for this adaptation? What of the source material was important to translate in the animation?
M.Y.: I was somehow confident to make a good film for a few years, putting aside the question whether it becomes popular or not.
I want an approach that is close to each original. For “ Shijo-han shinwa taikei “, I approached the way I think it should be when we make an animation from a novel. For “ Ping-pong“, I approached the way that I think it should be when we make an animation from a manga. If the original wasn’t good I would modify it, but the original was very well made. So I decided to transfer directly what I felt reading manga, and add details to make the story clearer only when it’s necessary. The panel layout was great so I didn’t need to change. So I made the animation just like cutting and pasting the panel of original manga.
Keeping the good part of the original, I also wanted to supplement what I didn’t understand. For example, everyone says Smile is talented but Peko is ignored. Why nobody noticed Peko’s talent? Why was it only Smile who noticed it? Also, they say that China (Kon wenge) is strong but he doesn’t show much his strength. I wanted to bring it out, but why does he have this attitude? I imagined what’s behind all this in the original to add the details.
P-C: With Lu Over The Wall, you could finally make the film you wanted to make. In this respect, it is interesting to ask what you wanted to express, in terms of themes, animation, …etc., with this movie? Are themes of environment and racism themes that lie close to your heart?
M.Y.: When I think about my creations during interviews, I realise that I always do the same thing fundamentally. I wish to understand others, probably because I wish to be understood too. I think it is not good to block someone without understanding them, or judging someone as a bad person without really knowing them. Like falsely accusing a person when something bad happens. Probably it happened often in our history too. I always want to have more empathy for others with a big heart.
P-C: You worked a few times together with anime legends Osamu Kobayashi and Tsutomu Shibayama. You underlined that their work ethic and erudition shocked you. Can you explain their work ethic? Why did it shock you at that time?
M.Y.: The two of them are genius animators. They worked so hard drawing very fast. They built a company, went to get contracts themselves and let staffs do, and took care of these employees. They trained many skilled people in this company. I used to think that I’d be like them when I get their age, but I’m not getting close even if I get older now. I find their work amazing and they are my goal. Although I will probably never overcome them, I don’t want to forget to keep trying.
Storyboards that Shibayama makes is like a picture book. He draws everything precisely; it’s very clean and quick. He works a lot everyday. When I was younger I wasn’t good at changing my focus, but Shibayama draws 3 hours in the morning, after that he writes another 3 hours, and he does something else for 3 hours more. In these 3 hours span, he does as much as a normal person does in a whole day. At a meeting for a project that Shibayama took direction of, he was drawing on the spot. He didn’t even see the documents, he remembered everything. “ Cars are in shapes like this, so let’s use this shape, characters are good in this way… “ Everything was decided so quickly in this meeting. He has a lot of knowledge and his skills don’t weaken. I’ve asked him to get weaker as appropriate to his age, but I think he hasn’t at all yet. Shibayama is retired now, but he is still very good.
He doesn’t expect anything from the others. Even though he is good, he doesn’t say the others should draw as well as he does. He makes storyboards so that it can be drawn by anybody, even by an animator who isn’t so good. That’s what I respect a lot about him. Kobayashi is also a genius but in the opposite way. Nobody can draw like Shibayama or Kobayashi, but they correct what the staffs do promptly. I find their methode unique.
P-C: How would you describe you work ethic?
M.Y.: Being flexible, and enjoy the work as much as possible. I sometimes get mad but it doesn’t change anything. I try to provide everyone with the best conditions. But the most important thing is the film itself. The audience has nothing to do with how staffs worked during the production. So I aim to make good films that always surpass the quality standards, overcoming any accidents in good humor.
P-C: Another legend you worked with was Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli. You did the Key animation, which allows you room to express your own style, on My Neighbors the Yamadas. How was working under Takahata for Studio Ghibli?
M.Y.: Takahata and Miyazaki, just like Tsutomu Shibayama and Osamu Kobayashi, were people I had been admiring. Especially for Takahata, I had the image that he was hard to please. But I met in person and he was actually very franc and gentle. He said “It’s the first time working with you. Let’s talk a bit” and we talked in a café in Ghibli studio. I was surprised that he proposed such a thing. I was impressed also in a meeting later. I had been thinking that a director has to respond quickly to questions and give instructions, but Takahata took time to consider very carefully before answering. I thought: “oh, a director could work like this”. It was for a scene of riding a bicycle, or maybe a motorcycle. He was explaining with gestures, saying, “ You see, we ride like this. Hum? Or maybe like this? Oh, maybe in this way? ”. It made me think that a director could take time for hesitation. It’s not good to take too much time for it either though.
I learned allowing myself to hesitate, and “ my neighbors the Yamadas “ was also made in a special style so I learned different way of working.
P-C: Can you give us a small teaser about the future projects of your production company?
M.Y.: At the beginning of next year, “ Devil-man “, an animation for Netflix will be released. After that, we have a plan to make an original animation. This time, it has been 12 years that we didn’t make a film since “Mind game”. I’d like to see the reactions of the audience and create even more entertaining and higher quality films.