16 September 2011

Masaaki Yuasa at Japan Media Arts Festival Dortmund, Part III

Film Talk with Masaaki Yuasa at Japan Media Arts Festival Dortmund
Dortmunder U, September 11, 2011

Read  Part I: Masaaki Yuasa at Japan Media Arts Festival Dortmund

Part III: Masaaki Yuasa on Kaiba and working for Madhouse

As we had watched the first three episodes of Kaiba (カイバ, 2008) just before the film talk began with Masaaki Yuasa, host Stefan Riekeles brought it up in conversation before Mind Game (マインド・ゲーム, 2003). Kaiba is one of several projects including Kemonozume (ケモノヅメ, 2006) and Tatami Galaxy (四畳半神話大系, 2010) that Yuasa has done in collaboration with Madhouse.
Masao Maruyama, the main producer and studio head at Madhouse, was the one to make contact with Yuasa and suggest that he direct something for them. Yuasa could hardly even believe it when Maruyama called him personally. Despite his respect and admiration for Maruyama, Yuasa didn’t just jump on board with the ideas Maruyama initially brought to him. The audience at Dortmunder U laughed when Yuasa described saying “No… no… no, that’s boring…” to one after another of Maruyama’s suggestions. I did not have the impression that Yuasa was being arrogant; rather, I think he has a very firm idea of who he is as an artist (more on that later) and that he only wants to work on projects that he really cares about.

Yuasa found Maruyama very tolerant of his quirks. In fact, he was very surprised that once they had decided on a project that Maruyama was willing to give Yuasa free reign to do what he wanted with it. The same could be said of Eiko Tanaaka at Studio 4°C (where he did Mind Game) who also gave him lots of freedom as a director. Yuasa had heard stories that Maruyama could be very strict with directors but that was not his own personal experience.

On Kaiba, Yuasa got to wear a lot of different hats: not only did he come up with the concept for the series and act as the series director but he wrote screenplays, did storyboards, and directed. Because it was for television, the deadlines were a lot stricter than they are with feature films like Mind Game. Yuasa was given only one year to complete Kaiba. He personally directed episodes 1, 10, and 11 and allowed others to take the reins on the other episodes. Because time management what of the utmost importance, Yuasa said that it was necessary to delegate the work load to other directors.

Yuasa mentioned in particular Akitoshi Yokoyama who directed episodes 2-3, 7, and 9. Speaking specifically of episodes 2 and 3, which we had just screened, Yuasa explained that he had allowed Yokoyama to incorporate his own ideas into the screenplay and storyboards for those episodes. Yokoyama was given a great amount of freedom in this respect because episodes 2-4 did not really affect the main story-line of the series too much. Thus the themes of the mother-child dynamic, the idea of the mother passing away and asking her sister to care for her daughter, and the piano as a metaphor were all ideas that Yokoyama came up with.

As Yuasa freelances at a lot of different studios, he has noticed that they each seem to have their own language. At some studios they understand what he is trying to communicate to them as a director and at other ones they don’t. When he starts at a new studio it can sometimes take a while to understand the “language” that they speak.  He did not specifically talk about which studios he had problems communicating with though, he only generally inferred that he sometimes encounters problems when working with people unfamiliar with his style and methods.  

Later in the evening, during the question and answer time, an elderly gentleman whose viewing of Kaiba was his first contact with Yuasa’s work said that he found the landscapes in Kaiba depressing and wanted to know what kind of message Yuasa intended to relay with the setting. Yuasa responded that he always tries to keep a glimmer of hope in his work – even when depicting something that is difficult; he likes to keep hope alive. Yuasa described himself as a person with doubts, and he finds that the older he gets, the more misgivings he seems to have about the world. The one place where he sees hope is in children. He knows that viewers want to see something cheerful when they watch TV anime, but he wants to show them something deeper with his work.

Another question relating to Kaiba came from an audience member who recognized the familiar anime theme in Kaiba of a futuristic world in which humanity is threatened, but it was the first time he had encountered the idea of a person’s inner psyche being bought and sold like material goods. He wondered if Yuasa had come up with the concept on his own or if he had borrowed it from somewhere.

Yuasa responded by mentioning a title of some kind which I am afraid I didn’t quite catch and I believe he mentioned that the author/director was called Oshima. If any of my readers know what work he might have been referring to, do let me know in the comments. He went on the explain that he had been fascinated with the way in which the brain sends signals to the body via neurons that transmit information via electrical and chemical signalling. He wondered what if there are only such signals instead of a soul, but this notion did not appeal to him. It was certainly a possibility, but it couldn’t be everything.

Yuasa also said that he had been thinking about mortality and fear of death and he wondered when a person was considered dead. People from past centuries no longer live, but many of them have left pieces of themselves behind for us to enjoy – via legacies of music, writing, and so on – ensuring that in spirit they are in a certain sense still alive and with us. He is also interested in how so many people’s experiences of life are so different from one another yet also have points of similarity. These were some of the ideas Yuasa had been grappling with when planning Kaiba.

To see photos from this event, see my Google Plus profile or the Nishikata Eiga Facebook page.

Order works by Masaaki Yuasa: