Inu-Oh, Anime Musical for the Ages, Is Masaaki Yuasa's Swan Song

Movies Features Masaaki Yuasa
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<i>Inu-Oh</i>, Anime Musical for the Ages, Is Masaaki Yuasa's Swan Song

It’s difficult to sum up Masaaki Yuasa. In a word, he’s a director. Or an animator, rather. Maybe filmmaker. He shares an ability to reach audiences that may otherwise disregard animation with other “legends” like Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Makoto Shinkai (Your Name), but neither the man nor his films look quite the same as those figures. A Yuasa film doesn’t look like any one thing, let alone something defined by a singular art style. It’s in movement and choreography, the lines all in dance, that he comes through. Just how he pulls it all off is quite remarkable.

Yuasa first began his career as an in-between animator at Ajia-do Animation Works in the ‘80s. He was able to build up a portfolio working on popular television shows like Chibi Maruko-chan as a key animator, or animation director on The Hakkenden: A New Saga—works that don’t really presage his international presence. Audiences outside Japan probably wouldn’t recognize most of his early staff credits, or even his directorial debut (an episode of the 1992 OVA Anime Rakugo Kan). Even his award-winning film debut Mind Game would only reach a cult following internationally.

But in 2013, Yuasa co-founded Science SARU, an unconventional animation studio that has turned out eye-catching, award-winning TV and film nearly every year for almost a decade now. And where do you even begin to list the credits? You’ve seen him take wins from international film festivals (Lu Over The Wall), direct the prestige miniseries equivalent of a serialized anime (Japan Sinks: 2020) and then there’s his latest film, Inu-Oh, a sort of spin-off story to the historical epic The Tale of the Heike presented as a musical rock opera.

If you don’t know Yuasa’s name already, you know his work—and that’s how he wants it. “I don’t really think I have to be remembered as anything,” Yuasa told Paste on the eve of Inu-Oh’s U.S. theatrical release. “My hope and what I think is best for the staff is everyone to just watch the films that we create.”

Since it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival last year, Inu-Oh has been considered Yuasa’s swan song. It’s a fitting final statement for the man, conveying a vision for the medium as an exclamation point. Inu-Oh’s titular protagonist, depicted as a disfigured dancer and storyteller, teams up with a blind biwa-playing priest seeking the lost stories of the Heike clan. From its very premise, Yuasa’s latest explores themes of collaboration in artistic development, questions the motivations behind art that is considered radical and interrogates our motivations to create. Inu-Oh, the real-life man, has been lost to history, and in bookends Yuasa considers what that really means for the artist.

It’s easy to see why Yuasa may have wanted to end here. He stepped down as president of Science SARU in 2020 and finished the film as a freelance director, and in talking about his legacy, it’s clear he doesn’t see his departure as a loss to any collaborators. Speaking to the diverse expressions throughout his filmography, he’s quick to mention the team effort that it is, saying that while he “[matches] or [changes] the style depending on what the film is about,” the details are all the work of his staff—what they like to do and what they’re good at. It’s a stark departure from the level of production micro-management we’re used to hearing out of studios like Ghibli, where Miyazaki personally approves every frame

To that end, Yuasa has always kept good company, having now worked with everyone from prolific screenwriter Reiko Yoshida (Violet Evergarden) to storied art director Hiroshi Ôno (Kiki’s Delivery Service) to rising-star composer Kensuke Ushio (A Silent Voice). None, however, has been as influential to Yuasa as South Korean producer Eunyoung Choi. The two first worked together at Madhouse on Yuasa’s original 2006 television series Kemonozume, a romance anime about flesh-eating monsters. Choi worked as a key animator on the series and would continue to work alongside Yuasa at Madhouse over the following years.

“Meeting Eunyoung was an incident in my life that uncovered new things within me,” he remembers. “There are times when we work well together and everything goes smoothly, but because she has this completely different kind of mindset, I was able to learn a lot from her. And because she’s so different from the way I think we were able to do a lot of new things as well.”

Choi would go on to lead French animation company Ankama’s Japanese studio in 2009. The experience opened doors to an international community of fellow animators with different artistic and professional backgrounds, but while Yuasa did appear in some of the studio’s credits, the two wouldn’t work so closely together again until 2013. Choi departed the studio and, back together, the pair produced the short film Kick-Heart. Written and directed by Yuasa, the project was at the time the biggest Kickstarter success in the anime industry. And while shopping around for studios to work with (settling on Production I.G.), Choi and Yuasa decided they needed their own team.

Their biggest collaboration would come in 2013 when the pair founded Science SARU. Bringing on an international team of animators each had previously worked with, Science SARU made a suitably unconventional debut the following year with an episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. As Yuasa recounts, an Adventure Time staffer had contributed to the Kickstarter for Kick-Heart, and producer Justin Leach inquired about a near-future collaboration at the nascent studio. Produced by Frederator and Cartoon Network studios, Yuasa explains how “the way they created animation [on Adventure Time] was an ideal way of creating animation for me.” He pursued the opportunity and Cartoon Network liked his pitch for a bizarre story revolving around a kaleidoscopic depiction of the food chain as told in surreal watercolor expressions.

Directed by Yuasa and Choi, the 11-minute episode was a big statement, and it landed with animators and audiences around the world. But while “Food Chain” garnered the studio its first nominations from the Annie Awards and Annecy International Animated Film Festival (it would win at the festival twice in the years since), the studio was only just finding its legs. “When I was working on [Kick-Heart and Adventure Time],” Yuasa recalls, “I spent a month in Burbank and I was able to also tour a lot of other studios and I saw a lot of the different methods. I tried to take in all the parts I thought were good and incorporate it into my stuff.”

Some of those methods, include “Western ideas” about days off, rest and shorter work days. While the company continues to hire and retain international staff, Science SARU’s efforts have not been entirely frictionless. In 2021, Canadian animator Joan Chung described a culture of crunch that emerged as the studio grew to accommodate concurrent productions. Chung emphasized that her departure from the studio was amicable and that the “horror stories” were “thankfully fewer than some of SARU’s competitors.” But horror stories are horror stories.

Science SARU was formed as a team for Yuasa and Choi. While other staff members directed projects assisting other studios, Science SARU’s attention was firmly on whatever film or series Yuasa was directing. From 2014 to 2021, Yuasa directed four films and four TV series at the studio, including some of his most influential and beloved productions like the award-winning film Night Is Short, Walk On Girl and beloved Netflix original series Devilman Crybaby. Speaking to him, you get the sense Yuasa wants fans to associate the studio’s name, rather than his own, with those projects.

Following his departure, Choi and studio vet Abel Góngora each contributed original shorts to the anime anthology series Star Wars: Visions last year, and the studio’s first feature after Yuasa’s departure was notably helmed by Naoko Yamada (A Silent Voice, K-On!). This year the studio is releasing two new series, including Tatami Time Machine Blues, a sequel to Yuasa’s 2010 masterwork Tatami Galaxy. Directed by Sonny Boy creator Shingo Natsume, the sequel is a tentpole for Disney+ as the streaming platform vies for a place in the international market of anime distribution.

Science SARU lives on, and so does Yuasa. Eleven months since his last film debuted, the legendary director doesn’t sound finished himself. When asked if he thought he’d want to direct again, he answered modestly: “I think if I had the chance, yeah…I think I would do it.”

Autumn Wright is a freelance games critic and anime journalist. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.