A couple weeks ago, viewers of Adventure Time had a bit of a surprise treat with the episode “Food Chain”. The episode was weird even by Adventure Time standards, a children’s biology lesson operating on magical dream logic with a subtext of Buddhist enlightenment. The animation was different and better than usual, taking on an anime-esque rhythm but in an art style a far cry from the stereotypical big-eyes small-mouth conception of what “anime” looks like. The designs were more abstract, reminiscent of Takeshi Murakami’s “superflat” art, yet rendered in motion in a way that gave them more dimension than the show’s typical style usually allows for.
Welcome to the world of Masaaki Yuasa, perhaps the most underrated anime director who is finally starting to get his due.
Little of Yuasa’s work has been officially released in the US. His feature film Mind Game has played at a few festivals, including once at the Brattle, but hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-Ray in the US (though importable DVDs from other regions do have English subtitles). It’s understandably a hard sell, an experimental piece that dramatically changes its plot focus midway through and alternates between different animation styles including rotoscoped live-action every few seconds, but it’s a work of stunning beauty. Cult animator Billy Plympton has called it “the Citizen Kane of animation.”
Mind Game’s ultimate message is one of existentialist optimism: heaven and hell don’t exist and God’s crazy beyond human comprehension, but life is a party worth celebrating. This seems to be Yuasa’s general worldview. While some of his work takes a darker edge (the twisted short film Cat Soup or the futuristic tragedy of the series Kaiba), his sense of optimism shines through especially in the two series of his that have been licensed for US streaming: The Tatami Galaxy and Ping Pong The Animation. Tatami Galaxy might be his best work overall, a fast-paced hilarious Groundhog Day-style story about a college student repeatedly messing up in his search for a “rose-colored campus life.” At 11 episodes, it’s brilliantly structured, and where most anime series struggle with endings, the ending of Tatami Galaxy justifies every single choice made in the series. Ping Pong just finished, and is a thousand times cooler than a show about ping pong sounds like it’d be, thanks to awesome visuals, solid characters, and directing that creates a sense of wild intensity (think if someone made a series out of the Foosball episode of Community and you get the tone).
Yuasa finally seems to be getting more attention in America. In addition to his Adventure Time episode, he’s directing an episode in the upcoming season of Space Dandy. Most impressively, a Kickstarter for his wrestling romance short Kick-Heart managed to raise over $200,000 from American fans and has since aired twice on Adult Swim’s Toonami block. It’s not clear if his earlier work has any chance of being licensed, or if the two streaming series are doing well enough to get a DVD release, but Yuasa’s a unique talent who deserves the support he’s just starting to get.