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Esteu aquí: Inici Magazine Interview with Japanese film director and animator Masaaki Yuasa

Interview with Japanese film director and animator Masaaki Yuasa

A conversation with Masaaki Yuasa, Eunyoung Choi and Justin Leach, makers of the short film "Kick-Heart"

Last June, during the last days of Annecy Film Festival, we managed to meet one of the most original animation directors we admire from Japan: Masaaki Yuasa. We strongly defend that his work needs to be shown, shared and praised beyond its borders for its freedom, plasticity and expressivity... all attached to really unique stories with a pinch of experimental narrative.

Yuasa-san was competing at Annecy’s official selection with his new, crowdfunded short film: Kick-Heart, a bizarre colorful love story involving wrestling and sadomasochism. We spoke to Yuasa-san himself and his crew: Eunyoung Choi, Yuasa-san’s life-long assistant director -who helped us as an English/Japanese interpreter- and Justin Leach, producer of the short film who gave us a lot of insight about his crowdfunding experience. In this conversation, we discussed the singular nature of his new piece of work and we briefly reviewed some of the highlights of his whole filmography, including his first feature film -Mindgame- and his collection of auteur animated series at Madhouse studios: Kemonozume, Kaiba and The Tatami Galaxy.

Masaaki Yuasa V2

Wait, why are all they covering their eyes? Well, to protect their identities, just like the anonymous main character of the show turns into… Maskman M, the sadist wrestler!

Animac Magazine: First of all, thank you all for your time. And congratulations for Kick-Heart,  your new short film: it's been really well-received by the audience -they were really excited!- here at Annecy Festival. It's one of Yuasa-san’s most artistic-free and personal projects so far. How did it all begin? Which is the origin of the story?

Masaaki Yuasa: During a trip to France, I spotted a comic-book with a guy wearing a mask, a wrestler who looked like a sexual torturer. And I thought: "What if he was tortured and he felt pleasure... sexually, like a sexual fantasy?" This is how it all started.

Animac Magazine: But then it turned into a love story.

Masaaki Yuasa: I like love stories. (everyone laughs)

Animac Magazine: Yes, it’s one of your trademarks: really intense love stories.

Masaaki Yuasa: And this one is about S&M, a sadist and a masochist, which I think it's a perfect match!

Official Kick-heart Trailer from Kick-heart on Vimeo.

Animac Magazine: Let me ask you the inevitable question: about the Kickstarter experience. You've already explained in your Kickstarter page that it is an effective way to achieve artistic freedom. I think it has worked for you indeed.

Eunyoung Choi: At the beginning, we didn't really expect that much. In fact, we didn't really know about Kickstarter ourselves: it was Justin who suggested using it.

Justin Leach: Yes, basically, I pitched the idea to Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, the co-founder and CEO of Production I.G - I backed many occidental, Kickstarter projects myself and I thought it could be a really good move for anime, for Japanese creators, to launch projects this way. The main goal is to create something new and different so I thought crowdfunding would be a great way to produce something truly original and unique without the restrictions of traditional financing. I think it's safe to say Yuasa-san is a really original and unique author compared to other animation profiles in Japan, and that’s why people enjoy his work.

Animac Magazine: With crowdfunding, the backers can check, at anytime, on how the process is going.

Justin Leach: Yes, we keep people updated and we also like to listen to their feedback: it can change things. For example, at first we only offered digital rewards and then people said: "Hey, I want a t-shirt!” or “I want a DVD!". So, we had to work with Production I.G. to boost the rewards.

Animac Magazine: Did the feedback also affect the short film itself?

Eunyoung Choi: I don't think it really affected the story or the art, but it did really affect our motivation, I think, and this is really a big deal.

Masaaki Yuasa: I felt a lot of pressure! (everyone laughs)

Animac Magazine: How did the stretched goals in Kickstarter affect the production? For example, it unlocked more dubbings and, if you managed to pledge enough money, you would produce a music video or even turn the short film into a feature film.

Justin Leach: We managed to add a couple more minutes to the total time. So, the fan support shaped the product in this way.

Animac Magazine: And this altered your schedule, your work pipeline, maybe?

Masaaki Yuasa: It didn't really change the schedule but it involved more work for us.

Eunyoung Choi: We kept the same production schedule, and Kickstarter itself gives you a deadline. At the same time, we were working on the promotion of the project… It was very tense and difficult.

Animac Magazine: But very rewarding.

Justin Leach: Yes, I think so.

Eunyoung Choi: Of course!

Masaaki Yuasa: As Eunyoung said, at the beginning, I had no idea about Kickstarter but, in the process, I learned how to manage it.

Animac Magazine: Considering you achieved such a successful funding for your short film, are you thinking about counting on Kickstarter for future projects?

Justin Leach: Yes! I'd like to.

Masaaki Yuasa: Crowdfunding has been a very positive experience. If, in the future, there's the possibility or the opportunity to produce new projects... But not only through Kickstarter. I'm open to everything.

Eunyoung Choi: Whatever he wants to make!

Justin Leach: It all really depends on the project and if it really FITS the project, if it makes sense to use crowdfunding. Usually, projects that are more suitable for crowdfunding are the ones which are a bit more experimental and creative. If there's a project like that we could try crowdfunding again.

Animac Magazine: Let’s discuss Yuasa-san's filmography, shall we? We've detected that the art style in Kick-Heart is quite similar to the one used in Mindgame, your first feature film. But Mindgame also combined many other animation styles and techniques: it felt like the film was an open letter for experimentation. Was that intended or consciously improvised? How were you feeling during the process?

Masaaki Yuasa: It's interesting, because I just wanted to express Nishi's point of view and emotions. For example, when he feels really happy, the style gets warmer, with bright colors. Or for example, background: when the main character is not looking at the background, it all goes blurry. And then, when he looks at something carefully, the frame gets a lot of details. I wanted to express how the character feels like in this precise situation.

Justin Leach: And this feeling relates to animation, right?

Masaaki Yuasa: It's the concept, Mindgame is mind control. That's why I put lots of expressive twists: "He felt this way, this way." But Kick-Heart deals with another concept, a simpler concept, and that's why it's more consistent. They have different concepts.

Animac Magazine: Mindgame touches several themes that have continuously appeared in all your following works. For instance, the transformation of the body, or the paths not taken... Let’s stick with this last one. During the film, the main character is offered many “life-paths”. Is there any relation between this theme and all the experimental techniques shown in the film?

Eunyoung Choi: Could you give us more details...?

[At this point, I realize how difficult -and naïve- it’s to express one’s personal theory… to its very own author. Next question contains some Mindgame SPOILERS, so skip to the next question if you haven’t seen the film. If you seen it, let’s dive into the ridiculous world of Personal Interpretation. Shame on me. Why I’m not trimming this off? Because it leads to a really interesting idea: the act of feeling.]

Animac Magazine: Of course… So, Robin Nishi -the main character- dies at the beginning of the film, then he goes back to life and, at the climax, it seems like he can choose among many possible paths, many possible lives. I was wondering if this… theme could fit with the wide range of styles used in the film. In the Tatami Galaxy, this theme appears too, in the shape of parallel worlds.

Eunyoung Choi: Oh, now I understand. Good point!

Justin Leach: Pretty deep.

Eunyoung Choi: Yeah, I didn't think about that!

Masaaki Yuasa: I didn't want to tell that exactly. I don't want to force the audience to feel exactly what I want to feel. I want to give freedom to the audience. Some people can feel this way and other people… that way. I want to keep the gap between what I want to tell and what they want to feel.

Justin Leach: I think he didn't want to be that specific and give the audience the opportunity to interpret the film and make their own decisions.

Eunyoung Choi: Exactly!

Animac Magazine: Well, I've just shared my theory right now with you… but I’m aware it's not the only one: there are many theories and interpretations.

Justin Leach: It's the audience’s turn to find the meaning.

Masaaki Yuasa: I didn't conceive your theory precisely -meaning that- but I'm open to all the audience’s feelings.

Animac Magazine: In all your work, I've always seen you've been labeled as an expressionist animator. Do you consider yourself expressionist? There's always this problem with labels that film critics put on films. I say expressionist meaning you tend to use an unrealistic mutant style, with lots of color and movement. You express feelings instead of representing reality.

Masaaki Yuasa: Well, I want to express!

Animac Magazine: I’m curious because, in Mindgame or The Tatami Galaxy, many sequences are realistic: you use photorealistic techniques, or images grounded on a specific setting like Kyoto, with lots of detail. Are you interested also in realism, in the real world?

Masaaki Yuasa: Feelings, human feelings and emotions... I want them to be realistic. But the subtext -backgrounds, character looks- don’t need to be realistic.

Animac Magazine: Let me add another example: Crayon Shin-chan. Well, this is funny, because Crayon Shin-chan became a huge phenomenon in our country, in Catalonia, some years ago.

Eunyoung Choi: We heard!

Justin Leach: I didn't knew that!

Animac Magazine: People -and parents- went crazy about it.

Masaaki Yuasa: I knew already about it, yes!

Animac Magazine: Shin-chan showed the audience what Japan is like…using comedy. Lots of kids in our country could describe the Japanese lifestyle and culture in depth. For instances, what the houses look like and how they are inhabited, compared to Western cultures.

Eunyoung Choi: They were curious about it.

Masaaki Yuasa: It's interesting, because Crayon Shin-chan is a typical depiction of a Japanese, normal family and its daily life. And people watch them and they can feel the humor: it's amazing. We're pretty far away but you get the sense of humor. Wherever you are, we are not different.

Animac Magazine: Let me ask you about the Studio Madhouse era. There were three big series: Kemonozume, Kaiba and the Tatami Galaxy. The three of them are really unique: the plots, the art... It's really rare that a studio gives you so much artistic freedom.

Eunyoung Choi: We LOVE to talk about that. (everyone laughs)

Masaaki Yuasa: Madhouse has changed now. Before, for a long time, the top guy was Maruyama-san and he's really respectful with creators and directors. He used to give so much artistic freedom: "What do you want to make?" He really pushed the TV channels, and this was his power, he was the key person for all these series to happen.

Animac Magazine: And both Mindgame and the Tatami Galaxy won really prestigious awards in Japan, like animation awards at the Media Arts Festival. But then, considering that that Madhouse direction has changed, are you planning to move to other studios or networks? Are you planning to stick with Studio I.G?

[They all look surprised, or shocked, I don’t know. Nervous laughs.]

Eunyoung Choi: He's the guy who wants to find out everything!

Masaaki Yuasa: If there's an interesting project, I'm open to all destinations, studios or companies. With Kickstarter, I did by myself something without relying on any third-parties, and I'm still thinking about that.

Animac Magazine: Don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in the dirty rags. I was just wondering which studio or which network would help Yuasa-san to keep producing such artistic series and films with no restraints. We're fans of your work!

Masaaki Yuasa: Thank you for your encouragement!

Justin Leach: One of the goals of crowdfunding was to give Yuasa-san more freedom to make whatever wants to make. We want to be innovative, we want to take a risk, and sometimes studios don't want to try. Animation is expensive. If we manage to build a fan-base large enough to support his projects, we could do more original works… with the help of your support.

Animac Magazine: We're the ones who need to stick together.

Justin Leach: And maybe if we have enough fans, this will give us more leverage to work with bigger studios. If you have a fanbase, you are valuable for business. You're the ones who help decide our fate.

Animac Magazine: And this last year has proven that fans can be really loyal, with enough power...

Justin Leach: If you want it, you can make it happen!

Animac Magazine: And we can contact the creators in a more direct way, using social media.

Justin Leach: I think it's really cool. One great thing about the crowdfunding model is that.... I cannot speak for Japan, but in the Hollywood industry, there's lots of people between the fans and the artist. So many filters, lots of layers. Let’s take out the middle part and keep just the fans and the artists. I think it's possible.

Animac Magazine: Thank you very much again for your time. Arigatou gozaimashita!

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