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The greatest appeal of animation is unarguably ‘motion’, yet it is incredibly rare to find motion that we could call breathtaking. Enter Masaaki Yuasa. He is an animator who has successively created innovating motion we could not see anywhere else. He seems inimitable with his unique drawing style and off-the-wall motion, so much so that it seems like some genius inhabits him.
Interviewer: Yuichiro Oguro
December 2nd 1998, Jibundera, Tokyo
What reason lead you to join this industry?
I liked anime.
What exactly does that mean for you?
I quite liked anime drawings.
Were there works you liked in particular?
When I was a kid there were Mazinger Z or Space Battleship Yamato. There was a boom around Yamato when I was in middle school, so there was a general acceptance towards adults watching anime. After that I joined a design school, and I had to get a job after I graduate so…
You joined Ajiado at that time.
Right. (Tsutomu) Shibayama-san -who made Dokonjo Gaeru, Manga Nihon Mukashibanashi or Two Down Full Base– was there, so I realized I could work in that field, since I liked line drawing. And pencil sketches. I couldn’t draw manga-like stuff though. I had heard that you couldn’t make a living out of being an animator so I wondered if I was going to starve to death, but I thought it was still better than getting a license and become an art teacher.
Where did you go to college?
My school was Kyushu Sangyo University. I was in the faculty of fine art, department of fine art there.
What were you studying there?
Did you not say that you liked line drawings?
I liked etching and stuff like that. Plus, I was watching some anime at the time. I wasn’t watching many TV shows back then, but there were Telecom works. Like, I enjoyed Castle of Cagliostro, but it was just a vague impression in my case (laugh).
So you were not an anime fan so to speak?
I was watching, like, Takashi Nakamura-san for example.
Here you come (laugh).
I haven’t watched that much, but I was looking for Nakamura-san’s episodes of Gold Lightan. I was wondering if it was him every week.
Oh, so you were checking the animation on each episode.
Right, I was so glad when it was him, and I got all excited watching it. There were also A Production’s works. I was looking for good animators and but watched their parts on repeat, regardless of the story.
Was that when you were a student?
So you were watching a good amount of anime, weren’t you?
Well, I think I was but after I realized that I watched very few of them compared to other people.
I see (laugh). Why did you join Ajiado?
Back then, my only source of information was Animage’s recruitment ads. So when I called Ajiado after seeing their ad, I was just told to come the next day. I joined Ajiado, and realized I wouldn’t starve, so that was a weight out of my chest (laugh).
When did you start enjoying your work, making anime?
It’s waaaaaay after that. After I worked on Crayon Shin-chan. Before that it got a hard time with this job (laugh). It was really painful, drawing all day long, not being able to do it as expected, sucking at it. I really thought I had no future in this industry. I even considered quitting once, after I got sick. But I couldn’t find the opportunity to actually quit, so I went on, unresolved. But after a while it looked like my reputation was turning pretty good, so I started to think: ‘Hey, maybe I’m not that bad, actually’. Well, maybe it’s just my imagination after all (laugh).
You’re kidding (laugh).
I learned little by little how rough I was allowed make my drawings, that was a relief. Back when I started drawing in-betweens, I was under the pressure that what I drew was going to be on TV, and that mindset stayed after I became a key animator. But after a while I realized that it wasn’t a big deal to be on TV (laugh).
(Laugh) If aspiring animators hear you, I’m sure they’ll be relieved
I just made my work increasingly rough, so recently I’m troubling with clean stuff.
For example ?
On TV there are deadlines, so we often have to compromise at some point. But for me, it’s often harder to have plenty of time to draw all the details. It’s the case when I work with Morimoto-san or Ohira-kun. Talented people can draw as much as they have time, right?
You mean the result will only get better with time spent?
Right. In my case I start fast but the end result doesn’t really get better, regardless of the time I spend on it (wry smile)
So you prefer to draw fast and intuitively.
It’s easier for me, yes.
Doesn’t that confirm that you’re the genius type?
(laugh) Well, basically, I’m not good.
What is that feeling you caught by working on Crayon Shin-chan?
The characters (Hiroshi) Ogawa-san created were the kind that moved using their shape, like cutouts, it was just their silhouette moving. It’s incredibly simple but you can move them realistically if you want to, even give them a skeleton.
I realized that it didn’t need to be all clean, and it became really fun from there.
So you really consider Shin-chan as an important work in you career?
I’ve worked on it for long, so it’s a fun work I can do with an easy mindset. But I can’t stand to get bored by only doing that for too long, so I get work from other places sometimes.
What would you cite as an emblematic work of yours?
I don’t have anything like that.
What about ‘The Song I like’ in the Chibi Maruko-chan movie?
Ah, that was the first time I did my own storyboards, and the reactions were better than my own appreciation, so that felt good (laugh).
(laugh) Did you get the song first and worked freely on it?
You did ‘Kaimono Boogie’ and…
And one called ‘Drag Race’, by Eichi Otaki.
It was a really fun piece, very expressive and varied in style.
I think people made their part freely. Like (Hideyuki) Funakoshi-san, (Tsuneo) Kobayashi-san… Shibayama-san as well… It’s weird when people appreciate what I do more than myself, it makes me think: ‘Oh, so I guess it’s good’
I see. So, I would like to ask you about The Hakkenden Shinshou episode 4. What brought you on the project?
I got a call from Ohira-kun, he said that he wanted to tell me about something.
Had you already met each other?
We hadn’t. He showed me character sheets, and told me he was projecting on doing this. I thought I could try. Besides, I was thinking about working on more cool-ish anime as well. Plus he told me that he didn’t mind if the characters didn’t resemble. After that I watched his Kottou-ya.
Ah, that impressive film.
Right. After I saw it I thought THAT was realistic, and wanted to do the same if I was doing realistic style.
So by realistic you don’t mean something like in robot anime?
Something more visceral… and thick (laugh). That’s the aspect that I appreciated.
Did the fact that he did Kottou-ya influe on how you saw the man when working with him?
It did, to a certain extent. The project was Hakkenden, so I knew I had to make a distinction, but yet.
Like, did you force yourself to draw handsome characters?
Not to that point (laugh). Anyways, after I saw the storyboards he made, I thought that wasn’t feasible with those characters.
You mean the acting required by the storyboards could not be done with the usual Hakkenden character designs?
That really confused me. Besides, the production at that time wasn’t trusting me.
Apparently, they thought that it wasn’t a job for someone who did Chibi Maruko-chan, which I quite agreed on (laugh). There were many surprises in working with Ohira-kun. He can really draw anything, from plants to people to buildings. That really was a culture shock. I had always worked on limited animation, so it was normal for me that characters didn’t move at all. That was like discovering a whole other world for me. Besides, I had never done jidaigeki, and had barely seen any. We had some time before starting the production, so I was watching and studying jidaigeki during it. I was really invested in it. I don’t know if that was useful.
How was the production phase?
Each of us had a completely different method, so we had some arguments with Ohira-kun. We spent 4 months on layouts, then we only had one or two months for animation direction. Considering that I had to do the roughs as well, I could only make layouts for two cuts per day.
So you had to check two layouts per day… That’s tough.
Yeah, exactly, that’s what I was thinking the entire time.
So you did not have much time for animation direction, were you able to correct all cuts?
I think I only did three quarters. The rest I gave to Ohira-kun or (Shinji) Hashimoto-kun. So I didn’t correct all of them.
And for the layouts?
We split that as well. I checked half of them and Ohira-kun did the other half.
Sorry for asking so many questions. How precise were the instructions in the storyboards? Like camerawork for example?
I guess they were quite accurate. Personally, I was really following the storyboards to the letter.
When you’re accustomed to usual commercial anime’s technique, there must have been many surprising shots, weren’t there?
Exactly. Sometimes characters were constantly moving. That’s what really surprised me.
What about the visual coherence?
There wasn’t any. Me and Ohira-kun were correcting them individually, on our own. It wasn’t even divided by scene; the order was completely random on a cut-to-cut basis (wry smile). It was a complete mess. Plus, we had other people helping, adding even more chaos. During the production, I was wondering if this was actually going to be sold.
Anyways, it came out, and apparently it was well received.
Not only that, but it became a topic of conversation within the industry.
Though I think we owe that to Ohira-kun. I think it would have been even more amazing if it had a proper director, and not me (wry smile).
I don’t think so. There are some neat touches like when Hamaji closes the fusuma abruptly, it goes back a little bit with the kick.
Ah, that was in the part Ohira-kun directed. I noticed how he cared about details from the storyboards.
It is a type of realism different from Ghibli anime.
Right, I don’t know how to put it, but it’s a sordid kind of animation.
Making it feel like a hand camera viewpoint was also neat.
The layouts were atypical as well.
It doesn’t look like anything done before nor after it. Did The Hakkenden episode 4 contribute to your future career?
I learned a lot from it, and I was able to see how Ohira-kun was working. Besides, I could meet Utsunomiya-san as well. Aside from that we were completely desperate during the production and relationships with the production company weren’t good, so it’s not very good memories.
Did you get some influence from Utsunomiya-san?
Hmmm… I guess I did. I get inspiration from many people.
But when I saw Utsunomiya-san’s drawings, I was like: “Oh.”
Like, you realized it could be done that way?
Exactly, it felt like he was taking the shapes and directly turned them into drawings. Each person has their way of drawing shapes, right?
Ah, I see, stuff like first sketches when you start to draw.
That’s right, it felt like he was directly turning those into drawings. I thought it looked very easy to draw.
Besides, it allows to represent volume.
Right, he’s very good at that, isn’t he?
Now I would like to ask you about Crayon Shin-chan series. In the first movie Action Kamen VS. Leotard Devil, which part did you draw key animation for?
It’s at the end, the part where Leotard Demon and Action Kamen race to the top of the tower. Aside from that I did some designs.
What designs did you do? The Leotard Demon’s Tower for example?
I did that, indeed. The spaceship as well, and other things.
Has it been the same for all movies from Leotard Devil?
Right, even the one that came out just recently.
You’re not doing the one for next year, are you?
In the part where they run up the tower in Leotard Devil, the camera moves from one viewpoint to another, right? That was great, it’s really satisfying for an animation fan.
I like sensational stuff, something that can reflect what you see.
You did not participate as a key animator on Buri Buri Kingdom, right?
I didn’t, that’s when I was working on Hakkenden, so I just made designs.
For the third one: Unkokusai’s Ambition, I suppose you did the robot battle at the end?
In a quite robot-anime fashion.
It’s almost all according to (Mitsuru) Hongou-san’s storyboards. They were especially entertaining.
It’s not only for your parts, but in Shin-chan movies, there are often parts that are suddenly animated on the 1s, does that decision come from direction?
For some of them, yes.
So it happens that sometimes animators decide to use a certain number of frames?
I’m not the kind of guy who puts efforts into using a lot of frames (laugh). Actually it’s better if I can limit them to a smaller amount, it’s easier.
Does the episode director also give instructions for the number of frames used in the TV series?
Yes, they can ask to animate certain parts on the 1s. In Shin-chan, it’s often funnier to animate him on the 1s when he’s moving weirdly, so sometimes there are orders from the episode director to animate those parts on the 1s.
I see. Is there a work of yours that you find particularly memorable in Shin-chan movie series?
In the first film, I was the one who said that they could race to the top of the tower.
So you’re the one who proposed the idea?
Right, and I quite like my key animation on that part, I’d give it a 7/10. For the designs, I like the one of the tower in the climax of Buriburi Kingdom. Like, when the ball comes down…
So that scene wasn’t made from the storyboards but came with the designs?
Right. Whether the storyboards or the designs come first depends on the case, but I like when silly things move using gigantic mechanics
What about Unkokusai’s Ambition?
I did many things on that one, like jidaigeki-style clothing or buildings. The loose robot at the end and some parts of the city as well.
So you also made the designs of the robot?
It was a simple one, but yeah. That weird round vehicle as well.
How about the item Shin-chan puts on his head at the end, the one the lady brings of a weird box?
That’s an idea of Hongou-san’s. In Adventure in Henderland, I did the storyboards for the chasing scene at the end. The feedback was good for that one as well, so I came to appreciate it (laugh).
You appreciated it because it was well received? (laugh)
Right. Most of the time I think it’s bad after I delivered it, but it turns out to feel good when people appreciate it.
If I remember well, you did both storyboards and animation for that chasing scene. Which parts precisely?
From the start of the chase to when the two (okama) are burning. I think I handled camerawork quite well on that one. I don’t know why, but I like it when the camera angles feel neat.
What about the next one, Pursuit of the Balls of Darkness?
There isn’t any part for which I can say: “I did this” on Balls of Darkness.
The film itself was quite sober.
Indeed, even if it was entertaining. Action scenes were mostly based on hand-to-hand combat, and I faded away compared to people who handle that kind of scene well, like (Masayoshi) Ando-san and (Hiroyuki) Nishimura-san.
I guess you prefer more eccentric motion…
Well, I think it’s my role in the team as well. I’d like to do realistic stuff as well, but my efforts tend to be fruitless on that side. An acquaintance of mine once told me I hadn’t anything to do with the end result of Hakkenden, and that was vexing for me so I’m trying to get a shot with realistic stuff, without success for now.
How precisely do you come up with designs in Shin-chan?
I draw on my sketch book, like “Let’s do this, how about this?”
Showing your ideas?
Right, though most of them aren’t used.
So you draw them and show them to the director?
Yes, I just put entire sketchbooks on his desk, suggesting him to take a look. Whether it was Hongou-san or (Yumiko) Suga-san when I was at Ajiado, they gave me a lot of different works to do. It could be the setting for a particular scene, or designs. Most of the time I’m not motivated at all until they tell me to do it, but once I start making research for it, I often find a lot of interesting stuff.
You have a certain reputation as the specialist of ‘Buriburizaemon’. That started more or less during Hakkenden, didn’t it?
I think so. It was a jidaigeki after all, so it was fun to apply what I had learned in a manga-esque fashion. But when it comes to ‘Buriburizaemon’, I personally found Shizuka Hayashi-san’s funnier.
The part she did was when drawings started to move, so it really looked like doodles, it was so funny to me.
That sounds like ‘Buriburizaemon’ ‘s ‘Raimei’ part, the one that felt like a self-parody of Hakkenden.
You think so?
There were some similar camera angles and characters.
Maybe I drew some influence, but didn’t realize it.
So you also made the storyboards for the ‘Buriburizaemon’ series?
Right, in the end I came to enjoy drawing storyboards, so for now my interest is in that area. I suppose at some point I’ll want to write scripts by making storyboards, and I think I’m just starting to learn. But personally, I don’t have any objective from the beginning. I’m only thinking about in-betweens when I’m doing in-betweens, only key animation when I’m doing key animation… So all of this is thanks to people who told me to do storyboards or designs, giving me the opportunity.
So you were also designated to do ‘Buriburizaemon’?
I was, it’s Hongou-san who asked me if I wanted to try storyboards.
I see, do you tend to write by instinct when you’re doing key animation?
I also draw after doing research sometimes, even if the time I spend on my desk remains short. I like to look for completely useless stuff.
Does it happen to do research for things like Shin-chan?
I do personally. For example, if there’s an episode about going to the sea, I look tons of videos of the sea. To my mind that also counts as efforts, even if people always think I’m coasting.
You said before that you rated your work on Leotard Demon 7/10, is there a 10/10?
Are there other works you would give high ratings?
Henderland’s a 7/10 as well (laugh). What else..? Chibi Maruko-chan’s new opening would be a 6.5 or a 7.
You mean the one for the second series?
Right. I don’t even really know myself. I’m confused between the ones I like myself and the ones I appreciate because people said it was good. I occasionally get the impression that the cut I just did is good though.
When does that happen for instance?
When I watch it on TV… I look the stuff I did a lot on TV.
I can be really insisting. I spend hours only watching my own latest work meticulously.
The same episode?
(laugh) I know it doesn’t sound cool at all, but I really enjoy seeing what I did well or not.
Watching your own work.
Yes, though it’s mostly just painful when I’m making it. Yet I really love watching the result.
What would be a 10/10 work, if there was one?
Something like what Ohira-kun or Morimoto-san do (laugh).
You personally don’t want to focus on the artistic side in particular?
I don’t, I’d rather make entertaining stories than focusing on technique. I don’t want to obsess over drawing style. Before I wanted to do stuff like that, something like Morimoto-san or Ohira-kun’s works, something that feels like artist’s work.
Do you think they’re the artist type?
I don’t know if the word is appropriate, but they’re obsessed with drawings. They’re working all day long, it feels like they’re surpassing the commercial pace.
You mean it exceeds their professional context?
Right, personally I care for my family (laugh).
Are you married?
No, I don’t have any. Anyway, I personally wouldn’t want to work if I just had enough money.
Do you have an inclination for full animation?
I’d like to make some if I could. I like old cartoons and stuff like that. I’d also like to do it in a realistic style, but I can’t set my mind to it considering the risks. At least for now, in my situation. It’d certainly be interesting to try though.
It would mostly concern the Shin-chan movies, but is there something you consider essential to design?
To keep it simple, with a single point that’s weird. Having a single atypical point in the design makes a good comedic effect. If it’s an armor for example, I look for actual ones and accentuate one part.
Is there something concrete you would like to do in the future?
I’ve been recently thinking that I’d like to do something with my own characters. Again, in a realistic style.
With your own character designs?
I thought director would be fine too, but in the end, I’d like to keep control on the drawings as well. Maybe it comes to drawings after all. But mine are apparently the minority, so I don’t know.
You mean your drawing style?
Right, I’d like to try it with my own style. It’s not about the logic of motion you know, I’d like to transcribe what I have within myself properly.
Do you already have ideas for your own characters?
Not something very extravagant, but it’s something in the line of Utsunomiya-san, Ohira-kun, or Crayon Shin-chan. Something simple, yet that can move realistically… it’s difficult to explain it with words, but yeah.
You said just before that you liked realism, but what kind of realism would it be in that case?
It’d be like Ohira-kun’, but not to his extent. It would be that, but in a more bouncy way, like if we took the middle ground between him and Utsunomiya-san. I don’t know how to put it. I don’t know it well, but anime nowadays tend to add a lot of decorative stuff to the character, right? My designs would be simpler than that. When I say simplistic people tend to imagine a gag manga style, but I’d like to point out that there are things that are more realistic despite having less lines. There was that show recently you know? Where someone jumps off a building, and they all have big eyes.
Ah, you mean Lain.
There is that, or (Masatsugu) Arakawa-san’s Yukiwari no Hana.
Yes, I see, it’s the game, right?
Exactly. I like that kind of thing. I’d like to take those character designs and bring them closer to the selling line.
What do you mean?
Well, I say that but it’d be more like my own criteria of a well-selling line.
What kind of line is that?
Hmmm… difficult question but, like Tim Burton for example (laugh)
Oh, Burton? But when you think about it, there are a lot of goodies on his characters, so in some way that counts as a selling line.
I think that could be a good strategy, but I don’t get any offer for that kind of work yet.
I guess so.
Since you know, it’s either for anime fans or kids. I’d like something simpler but of good taste.
Goodies adult would also buy.
Right, that’s something he’s good at.
Do you like Tim Burton?
Only recently, but I’ve come to understand him. I didn’t find his style attracting at all in the past. Drawings are good but the tempo was too fast for me.
Is there anyone else you were inspired by in the industry?
I took inspiration from a lot of people, like Ohira-kun or Ogawa-san. When I see other people’s drawings, I always feel like I should do like them. It’s the same when I watch proper anime, I feel like I should get better.
What do you call proper anime?
Anime that are animated meticulously. I don’t really like cool-ish anime, but I can’t help admiring the work, how they’re doing it seriously, properly animating incredible action scenes. There are definitely far more people that are talented compared to the previous generation. They’re all so good, I’m almost ashamed of making a living on the same field.
Don’t say that (laugh). We’re coming back a little bit, but how did you come up with ideas of the different parts in Chibi Maruko-chan’s songs?
I followed the songs’ feel. I was doing it on the same celluloids as the rest of the movie, so I thought I had to differentiate it as much as possible from the rest. I changed the coloring for example, and for the camera work… yeah, it’s really according to the song’s feeling. I just inserted what came to my mind by listening to it, and assembled it. When drawing women of a certain age, I think people tend to make the lines feel dirtier, I don’t like that. Instead I wanted to make her the coolest old lady possible. But the face… I guess I wasn’t really there for the face. I hope it were refreshing enough, like something the audience would wonder what they just saw after it happened. Is this OK as an answer? (laugh)
So, I wondered if it wouldn’t be too strange, but in the end it was alright (laugh). I hoped I could make it monotone for the colors, to make it more like a short piece of scene play. The animation wouldn’t do credit to the song if it doesn’t move enough, so if I could do that kind of stuff in full animation, I think it could be interesting.
I heard that you made that piece in a very short time.
That’s right. Especially for Kaimono Boogie, for which I asked people to make key animation, so my role was to correct what they did. Though I didn’t correct all of it.
Oh, I see. What about Drag Race? Did you draw all the key animation?
I did. I drew it quite fast though. I wanted to make something cleaner for the part were birds fly away, but the result was very messy (laugh). For the music… well, it’s easy to sync with the music, since it directly evokes what you draw.
You really are a prodigy.
I’m not (laugh). Even if I may be good for this particular kind of stuff. Things like the chase scene in Henderland, that kind of stuff I can imagine immediately.
Really, so that wasn’t even the result of long reflection?
I did think, but once I did, I drew it in a row and thought it was fine.
Like the part where they go up and down?
I can come up with that kind of silly stuff instantly.
So it’s your specialty.
I suppose it is, at least for that level. Yet I don’t want to make the whole thing about action, so I’d like to learn about screenwriting as well.
Considering that you started at Ajiado, and that you are getting most of your work from Shinei Douga, I can’t help but feel the influence from A-Production:
After I started working in the industry, I learned by watching A-Pro works.
I think my unclean drawings come from there. Like in Dokonjou Gaeru, it’s a streamline-style of drawings. It’s the kind of animation that’s always deforming while it’s moving.
Which ones were you watching specifically? Would it be Dokonjou Gaeru and shows like that?
I like Dokonkou of course, and I liked (Yoshifumi) Kondo-san and (Hayao) Miyazaki-san’s key animations as well. Of course there was Shibayama-san, and (Osamu) Kobayashi-san who were amazing. The drawings stretch in a surprising way when they did it, I really wouldn’t have imagined that was possible, and it was my very first objective at the time.
Crayon Shin-chan movies really have that lost A-Pro feel to them. There are a lot of expression through motion, isn’t there?
Indeed. Plus there are more and more talented people. I really liked A-Pro, so I made a character along their line for ‘Anime Rakugokan’. I thought I would stop imitating their style there, even if the basis hasn’t changed.
So, ‘Anime Rakugokan’ was the conclusion of your A-Pro style.
I guess so, even if it doesn’t sound serious at all (laugh).
We almost cannot find it in rental shops, can we?
Indeed, I personally don’t want people to watch it either, it’s so embarrassing (laugh).
What was your next objective after graduating from A-Pro?
At first I thought I should proceed by themes, doing different style for each work. But after I participated in Crayon Shin-chan movies, that idea disappeared completely. I did consecutively some manga-like stuff, then illustrated book-style with Shirokuma-kun, and realistic style with Hakkenden. So I didn’t have themes to follow anymore, and I didn’t know what to do. That’s why recently I came to think about doing directing or character design.
If you read this article and want him to do your character design, please contact him.
Yeah, I hope there is a producer somewhere who would let me do it.
Would you prefer shorts?
No, I’d like to make a series. I’m waiting for someone who’ll let me do an original anime, how arrogant (laugh).
Then maybe you shouldn’t have insisted so much on the fact that you’re working by instinct (laugh).
Aaaah… well, it’s not good, that’s for sure… But I think my work is objectively loose.
But you don’t dislike yourself for working like that, do you?
I guess so, I don’t want to look like I’m putting all my efforts into something either.
You don’t like to take it too seriously?
I like drawings that require efforts but don’t look like so. Even if I drew them loosely.