Masaaki Yuasa’s background in animation goes back decades, but he’s probably best known to international audiences for his debut feature as a director, 2004’s Mind Game: a psychedelic trip of a movie that incorporates life, death, sex and yakuza feuds into one mind-bending package. Yuasa has mostly directed TV series, shorts or contributions to anthology movies since then, but 2017 has seen the long-awaited release of two new feature films from the man: comedy The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and fantasy Lu Over The Wall.
Yuasa’s film and TV output is characterised by deceptively simple animation that’s prone to expressive outbursts of manic energy. Lu Over The Wall is no exception, though here it’s filtered into material that’s a little more family-friendly than some of his prior work. The story focuses on Kai, a gloomy middle school student in a small seaside town where interests outside of a future in the local businesses are largely discouraged. He reluctantly joins a band with two fellow classmates and they practice in secret. Halfway through the first practice, Kai finds they already have a fan: a music-loving mermaid named Lu who wants to sing and dance with them…
“It’s about a boy meets girl and the rites of passage,” Yuasa says of Lu Over The Wall. “I just wanted to make a story about how everyone is different, and also about saying you like someone but you don’t always have a chance to get together. But, also, I wanted to create a story from my observation about modern society – social networks and how people tend to say things according to the media they’re talking to people through. We don’t always have to act out, and I think we can get more or better understanding by being just ourselves. And also, not just being you but accepting differences and different people. I think that would make everybody’s lives much easier.”
As alluded to in his previous answer, social media makes up a big part of Lu’s story, with platforms like YouTube or Twitter driving certain narrative events. While the film doesn’t exactly condemn social media’s omnipresence in contemporary culture, Yuasa does hope that people take away an idea of how these networks can sometimes reshape our relationships to people and the world around us to potentially detrimental means.
“It’s about understanding other people,” he says, “and I don’t think it’s just about Japan. I think it’s pretty much a universal issue at the moment. It’s actually quite easy to criticise other people or think and feel bad about other people, and understanding other people is much, much harder. But I think that’s my wishful thinking that people would be so much better if we could do it well.”
VAMPIRES VS MERMAIDS
One of the more unique elements of Lu Over The Wall’s story is that a bite from a mermaid or merman can transform the bite recipient into a mer-creature, be they a human, another aquatic being, or a dog. This plot device feels like a holdover from Yuasa’s original concept for the film: that it would involve vampires as the fantastical creature of focus, rather than a mermaid.
“It was a vampire girl and a vampire boy,” Yuasa says. “But as we developed the project, we thought we should probably make it more Japanese, so it was gonna be a mononoke monster in the mountains. But then we wanted something cuter, so, okay, mermaid girl but with some sort of vampire elements in her. The bottom line is we didn’t want to bring in something completely new or different, because I wanted to make a film everybody loves. Everybody loves a mermaid.”
As well as having two films out this year, Yuasa has also been working on a series for Netflix, due for release on the service in 2018. DEVILMAN: Crybaby is a new adaptation of Go Nagai’s hit manga, and concerns a demon possessing a boy’s dead body to do evil, only to have a change of heart after falling in love with a human girl.
On the subject of working with an American company on an anime series, Yuasa “didn’t see any issues at all. We did the production and there was a liaison between us and Netflix’s Japanese company. And I’d worked with a US studio before, so it wasn’t bad.”
Netflix’s approach to television series did present some new challenges, though, as opposed to producing something for a more traditional week-by-week release schedule. “The pressure of the delivery of one batch was quite high,” he says, “and also it was new and interesting to think about the binge-watchers. I was quite conscious about people who would just watch everything in one go.”
Yuasa mentions his prior work with an American studio, which was for directing a sixth season episode of Adventure Time (“Food Chain”). “They were doing something that I wanted to do in Japan,” he says of Adventure Time’s creators. “That style and process: very simple animation characters but very creative and effective. It was very inspirational and I enjoyed the work.”
Conscious of the fact that animation directors will often be asked which artists in the same field have inspired them, we decide to throw Yuasa a curveball: does he have any idols or key influences when it comes to live-action filmmakers?
“So many,” he says with a smile on his face. “I love Steven Spielberg and Akira Kurosawa’s amazing, but I really, really love the camerawork of Brian De Palma. He’s amazing, as is Takeshi Kitano. And [Yasujirō] Ozu – very orthodox but I think I’ve taken influence from him. I love Tim Burton and I love Paul Verhoeven. The list is long.”
Lu Over The Wall is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.