Good lord, I am on a roll. This should be my second post in two days. Yesterday I made a sort of advertising post for one of my favorite manga–Memories of Emanon. Hopefully, some people were swayed by that and decided to take a look at it themselves–I’d be really glad. While I’m finally getting the hang of this blogging thing, I decided not to stick strictly to plugging manga. This time, I’d like to shine the spotlight on the works of one of the best anime creators in today’s industry–Masaaki Yuasa.
I’m sure you already know or at least have a general idea of who Yuasa is. His works were all well-received in fan circles, and a lot of people can identify him based on his wacky, unusual, and highly creative–some would say even downright ugly–style; which he also shares with some other animators/directors. He’s been active in animation for a long time, doing work in some OVAs/TV anime as The Hakkenden, and the crazy popular Crayon Shin-chan. He shared the load with director Tatsuo Sato for the massively trippy Cat Soup produced by JC Staff, but he’s almost only known today by his directorial work on Studio 4C‘s mind-blowing movie Mind Game, which also happens to be one of my favorite animated movies of all time. His other works at 4C include Noiseman Sound Insect, and the Happy Machine segment of the first Genius Party collection (I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten other ones, so bear with me here). Now he has directed three equally great TV series at Madhouse studios, which are:
- Kemonozume (2006)
- Kaiba (2008)
- The Tatami Galaxy/Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei (2010)
Masaaki Yuasa has proven time and again how going against the standard anime norms can oftentimes produce great, if not utterly amazing works. What follows next is a (hopefully) brief rundown of his works post-Mind Game.
Kemonozume – Yuasa’s first directorial stint on a TV series yields a simple, yet quite weird production about romance in the heat of conflict. It bears what I should say are hallmarks of a Yuasa production–romance and cool animation. Oftentimes the show is described as a crazy version of Romeo and Juliet; a description which I can hardly disagree with.
Kemonozume takes a family of demon hunters and pits them against the Shokujin-ki(Flesh Eaters) as they continue to wreak havoc in otherwise peaceful nights. But a freak parachuting accident is bound to change the fates of the Hunters’ eldest son and a female Flesh Eater, setting them on a journey to realize their burning passion amidst the conflict of their respective clans.
The show shares a lot of the visual tricks and quirky direction of Mind Game, although it is toned down in here. It still retains that weird charm which has been the trademark of a Yuasa show for sometime now. However, not many can appreciate the playful and overly stylish animation of the show–see episode 8’s Chair Kung-Fu–but the style is unmistakably creative. What’s also nice about the show is the way it handles passion and sexuality. For the first 5 or so episodes, there is a sex scene between the two main characters, but they do not come off as vulgar or crass. In fact they exude a certain kind of class mixed in with high amounts of eroticism. Yuasa manages to bring out the passion of those said scenes, just as he did in Mind Game–just without the highly abstract effects.
Story-wise, Kemonozume is a solid action-romance show for the first few episodes, but it gets into funny territory as it progresses. Enough of the backstories are explained to give the viewers the reason for many of the characters’ actions. However, many of those characters get the shortest end of the stick, and get payoffs they did not deserve. It could be chalked up to the antagonist’s villainy, but it doesn’t justify why the characters get that way at the end. In my view, many of them deserved better. Despite all that, however, the show doesn’t get into a bad and grim ending, which is nice.
And who can forget those introductory shorts before an episode? They never fail to make me laugh.
Kaiba – Yuasa’s 2008 release is a bit of a deviation from the sketchy, and unusual style fans have known him for since Mind Game. Boasting Nobutaka Ito character designs that are reminiscent of the late Osamu Tezuka’s art style, Kaiba again is a show displaying Yuasa’s flair for the creative and quirky. Don’t let the cutesy characters fool you, though; Kaiba is a legitimate take on a very interesting and broad theme–the subject of memories.
Kaiba is a fantasy story set in a universe where memories can be manipulated at will. They can be erased or modified at a whim of anyone. Good memories can be downloaded to replace bad ones, and bad memories can be deleted as if they never happened at all. The main character, Kaiba, is found lying alone, with a hole in his chest and without memories on Issoudan territory. The only clues he has to his own identity is a locket around his neck. Kaiba is then taken on a journey to reclaim his identity and to shape his world’s destiny.
Truth be told, I really need to rewatch Kaiba in order to fully grasp what it was saying, and to refresh my memory of the hard specifics. But what is clear here is that it was a show which explored almost the full spectrum of memory. From episode 3’s dramatic punch up to the plot-centric episodes, the show has tackled what it’s like to live in a world wherein memories and the overall mental faculties of a person can be tweaked intentionally. And it does it all with a slight hint of romance as well. Kaiba’s past relationships get revealed as the show progresses, and they also give him the motivation he needed to put the show’s ending in motion. As much as I would like to discuss its themes and messages in detail, I don’t have the space and the memory needed for it. So let’s just leave it at that.
Visually, Yuasa does not disappoint here. His usual energy and charm is present in Kaiba, even with the brooding atmosphere the show’s premise expects. The cutesy art design serves as a great complement to the sometimes depressing and dark direction the show takes. Kaiba’s animation is good, if not great; one could never tire of looking at Kaiba and friends journey through the diverse universe it’s set in.
And while I mentioned depressing, the show itself has a pretty happy ending. Yuasa is known as a positive guy, and he shows it here, even after what some characters have gone through. Some fans consider the latter plot-centric episodes as a let down and preferred the early episodic format, but I think they both complement each other well. Kaiba was always a journey from point A to point B, in my opinion, and I’m glad it went that way for the whole 12 episodes.
The Tatami Galaxy/Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei – While the prior two series have all been original Madhouse productions, this one is Yuasa’s return trip to adaptations since Mind Game. Adapted from a novel, Tatami ventures into a topic which is easily accessible for youths today. Part of why it’s acclaimed in the fandom as one of the best anime series in 2010 is its accessibility and the manner in which it is presented. It is a show which delves into the realm of fantasy and co-exists with the harsh reality of college.
*It is probably important to note that Tatami Galaxy is the first Yuasa show to be aired in Fuji TV’s noitaminA timeslot, and was also the show that saved it from its ratings slump during the Spring anime season.
University life and its trying times has always been a point of interest for me, and I was glad to see Tatami Galaxy do something with it and then some. It pits the protagonist, Watashi (I think he was supposed to be a nameless protagonist, but he was credited as Watashi in the ED credits), against the rigors and obstacles university life lays down on him. He is in pursuit of the so-called “rose-colored college life”, and he enters a lot of clubs in order to find one for himself. Unfortunately, fate isn’t as cooperative as he’d hoped, and he fails to reach his goal each time. However, a chance meeting with a fortune-teller gives him a chance to reset, and enter another club. Yes, this show has elements of Groundhog Day, and the infamous Endless Eight in its narrative. What stays the same for Watashi are the people he meets, namely Ozu and Akashi. His journey to find his happiness is the driving force behind Tatami’s plot, and is ultimately what makes the show great.
Mind Game and Kemonozume display Yuasa’s sketchy and abstract style, while Kaiba and Cat Soup are more grounded and traditional. Tatami Galaxy, in my opinion, sits in the middle point between both contrasting approaches. And needless to say, it works regardless. The simple character designs set against toned backgrounds are reminiscent of the flamboyant Mononoke, and it works here in Tatami. Ozu’s character design is an exception, I daresay, as his design fits his flexible character–you’ll see why later on. Akashi is lovely in her simplicity, and Maaya Sakamoto’s great VA work gives her another edge.
Given the show’s outlandish narrative style, it doesn’t come off as a show which tries to give an illusion of depth, but it otherwise tells a fairly simple story of a young adult male’s pursuit of happiness. Of course, the show itself gives a lot of food for thought for viewers, but in its heart the show is down-to-earth. As is common with a Yuasa show, the series has a very happy ending, and it also is the most dramatic of them all. Tatami Galaxy episode 11 is the best episode of anime I have seen in 2010, and it is just one of the many reasons the whole show itself is a contender for Show of the Year.
With all of that said, here’s to hoping Yuasa’s next project does not disappoint.
*Want to watch them all? Well, all of the anime I have mentioned can be found in the usual sites, provided you know them. Happy Hunting~