Masaaki Yuasa, Shingo Natsume, And The Context Of Unique Animation – Sakuga Blog

Masaaki Yuasa’s Tatami Galaxy stood as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, so how is Time Machine Blues perfectly recreating its charm 12 years later and under a different director? This is how context does (and doesn’t) affect the creation of such unique anime.

By 2010, Masaaki Yuasa had already made his share of notable anime. In fact, let me correct that: by then, Yuasa had already left his imprint on timeless franchises like Shin-chan and Maruko-chan, contributed to some historic feats in animation, and began a directorial career with some of the most unique and arguably greatest anime of all time, both in small and large scales. His theatrical direction debut Mind Game earned him awards all over the world with its unmatched energy, and most importantly, it put him on the map of alternative animation creators to watch out for. His first TV anime projects, rawness incarnate in Kemonozume and the endlessly imaginative Kaiba, earned similar critical appraisal. It was no secret that Yuasa was a generational talent whose ability to morph reality as an animator had translated into even more transgressive work as a director, with no adaptation period to the job at that.

The problem was, at least to producers like noitaminA co-founder and editor-in-chief at the time Koji Yamamoto, that most people had no idea about his greatness. Yuasa may have been a genius celebrated by fans of alternative cinema and animation diehards, but few people were exposed to his work, and even fewer were effectively hooked by it. For someone who ran a timeslot that was at the time thoroughly invested in creating animation you wouldn’t see anywhere else, and hopefully reach out to underserved demographics in the process, Yuasa’s relative obscurity was akin to sacrilege.

Initially, his noitaminA block had been deemed a space for anime aimed at adult women, even imposing Yamamoto the branding of anti-otaku, but he clarified that this was not how he saw the situation at all. As a self-declared otaku, he didn’t run the timeslot with the intention to antagonize anyone, but rather to attract new viewers whom the industry didn’t cater to. It was the drive to create works unlike the anime you’d find elsewhere that packed its early stages with titles aimed at that specific audience, and also what accidentally opened his eyes to the idea that with the right framing, even alternative animation is commercially worth pursuing. Kenji Nakamura’s BakeNeko and Mononoke glued many viewers to the screen, and was such a smashing success really a fluke? After all, they presented unique worldviews and a style you wouldn’t find elsewhere, so to an audience attracted to works like that, noitaminA would become the only possible destination. This realization led to the golden age of the timeslot, balancing works with a specific underserved target audience and the likes of Trapeze—radically unique anime they would throw into the world with the hope that it’d reach an audience, having seen that such a thing is possible.

Of course, a business-savvy person like Yamamoto didn’t believe that the recipe for success is as simple as giving free rein to an anime auteur, if you really intend to stand a chance in a cutthroat industry; Yuasa’s previous TV shows hadn’t made much of a splash outside specialized niches precisely for that reason. His approach was to create gateways into the unique worldviews of creators that might not have been approachable by a general audience otherwise. As an example, he brought up the appointment of beloved mangaka Chika Umino as the original designer for Eden of the East, an attempt to provide an immediate hook that a director and writer as dense as Kenji Kamiyama might not have otherwise. This was ideally a process of complementation as well, rather than attaching popular names to idiosyncratic works where they don’t belong.

When it came to his wish to work alongside Yuasa, Yamamoto decided to pair him up with equally fresh talent, as well as those more established names to give newcomers to the director’s madness something to hold onto. While Yuasa was the centerpiece of the project since the start, the hook took the form of a trident: writer Tomihiko Morimi, illustrator Yusuke Nakamura, and rock band ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION. This seemingly random collection of names was in fact brimming with premeditated synergy. Although younger than Yuasa, Morimi’s career as a novelist had run parallel to his directorial one, also quickly making a name for himself with his quirky style. Nakamura, on the other hand, was a very popular artist whose hyper-stylized approach could be a good fit for Yuasa’s animation—and as it turns out, he had already worked with Morimi, as the illustrator for his 2006 novel The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. His clients also included the likes of ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, for whom he’d illustrated some album covers in the past. By all means, a surprisingly tightly knit net to support Yuasa’s heavy idiosyncrasy.

All that was left was approaching the work that Yamamoto envisioned him making: a loose adaptation of Tatami Galaxy, heavily filtered through Yuasa’s surreal lens.

Tatami Galaxy‘s character designer and chief animation director Nobutake Ito based his adaptation of Yusuke Nakamura’s designs on another collaboration with ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION—the Atarashii Sekai music video produced by Kazuto Nakazawa. Watching his take on the aesthetic helped Ito translate its charm into animation.

The project began to take form in 2008, right after the broadcast of Kaiba that had enamored Yamamoto. As acknowledged in interviews like the show’s Blu-ray booklet, Yuasa initially read Morimi’s novel and found himself wondering why someone would even want to turn that into an anime, and specifically why entrust him with that duty—if anything, a live-action series made more sense to him. After all, and much like other Morimi works, Tatami Galaxy was heavily rooted in the real location of Kyoto, and its appeal came from the quirky prose and long diatribes of its protagonist. Since neither of those is a native quality of animation, Yuasa sought to capture the enjoyment he had while reading the novel, rather than strictly recreating its contents.

Alongside series composer Makoto Ueda, Yuasa fully reconstructed an episodic story about protagonist Me being trapped in his own expectations of a rose-colored campus life, in a 4.5 tatami room, in a parallel universe purgatory, and most importantly, in his first and worst contact with noted troublemaker Ozu. Thanks to his decision to deny complete satisfaction until the end and Ueda’s smart advice about how to build up continuity across a looping narrative—with details like the shady fortuneteller raising her fees every episode—they were able to put together Yuasa’s most narratively compelling work to date. And yet, it’s not the plot that people go to the likes of Yuasa and Morimi for, so that wasn’t necessarily the focus of their efforts.

As previously mentioned, Yuasa had identified the setting and prose as the two identifying characteristics of Morimi’s work. To begin addressing the former, he made location scouting trips to Kyoto, as did many other staff members; in a chat with other directors for the series’ official fanbook, then regular Yuasa ally Michio Mihara jokingly expressed his jealousy, since his episode happened to be the one to make no real mention of Kyoto and thus he didn’t get to go. Among the staff members who did make a trip, and despite recording tons of footage, there was a clear trend: it became less about thinking of specifics about the production, and more about casually soaking in the atmosphere of the setting. In that same chat, directors like Ryotaro Makihara noted that they would avoid classic touristic attractions and instead try out inconspicuous food stalls, sleep in business hotels and manga cafes, and go out to drink every night. Perhaps Mihara was right to be jealous.

As the series director, Yuasa’s experience wouldn’t be all that different. Across 4 trips to Kyoto, he did things like staying in a dormitory that would serve as the basis for the boarding house in the show, and eventually constructing the protagonist’s own room with tons of real-life props to be used in the climax of the show itself; a way to solidify the reality of the protagonist’s purgatory, while also increasing the farcical feel with the inescapable contrast between drawings and photos. At the same time, though, those trips where he told himself he’d do nothing but draw storyboards ended up with him not picking up the pen even once, instead finding himself lazing around Kyoto’s comfortable embrace. Yuasa came to understand that Morimi’s quirky portrayal of the city wasn’t as much of an exaggeration as he’d assumed, that the feeling of overlapping eras and fantasy was the real deal. And most importantly, he grasped why it was the perfect setting for a story about being incapable of moving on, having experienced its stasis himself.

Yuasa, who already felt that there wasn’t much meaning in drawing something that already exists, doubled down on the idea of using real footage as much as possible after his experiences in Kyoto. It quickly became a way to preserve the other important aspect of Morimi’s work that he had identified: the texture. While reading the book, the prose had enamored him, but how do you capture that in animation? Though he decided to retain as much of the monologues as possible, going as far as making rapid-fire speech part of the auditioning process for the protagonist, that alone wouldn’t capture the off-kilter charm of Morimi’s writing—instead, that would require similarly quirky visual tricks. Yuasa’s weirdness has always come naturally to him, but Tatami Galaxy put him in a position where he felt like he had to add extra friction to match someone else’s non-straightforward style.

The unique results speak for themselves, as early as the very first scene. The show opens up with a cut brazenly animated on the 4s and with wide spacing, immediately establishing a deliberately choppy style that makes the whole show feel like it exists in a space between indie and commercial animation. A barrage of fast narration that actively forces you to pay attention follows, peppered with real photos of Kyoto. The extravagant palette is desaturated enough to allow all the dissonant elements to exist together—but also not so much to convince you that such a thing is normal. Paper cut-outs with even choppier timing convey the irrationality of a dick. Across the show, perspectives are deliberately broken, as Yuasa instructed the team to draw unsteady straight lines even at wide angles, creating an effect similar to a collage. This is something that important figures like chief animation director Nobutake Ito and director Akitoshi Yokoyama confirmed was harsh work, as animators have to fight against their instinct to draw things right, and also can’t simply break a drawing apart without thinking about it; it has to be calculated friction, which sums up the directorial approach.

To handle this very particular workload, Yuasa wanted a tight team, seeking individuals who could handle storyboarding, episode direction, and animation direction at the same time—a setup that he’d had positive experiences with in the past. At the same time, and despite being happy to rely on everyone who had helped him on Kemonozume and Kaiba, he also made an effort to recruit young talent to complement the team. While the schedule got in the way of some of his plans, the team did remain fairly small, yet amassing perhaps the greatest amount of animation talent that he’s ever had at his disposal. With a team of that caliber, Yuasa’s radical vision, and Morimi’s charm as the foundation, it feels almost inevitable that Tatami Galaxy would end up being one of the best anime ever made. Despite not being a straightforward adaptation, the existence of the source material provided enough of a structure to prevent Yuasa from losing track like in some previous works, while at the same time not really stifling his creativity—if anything, motivating him to use new techniques to match the writer’s unique appeal.

Yuasa created the first episode as the guidelines for the rest of the staff to iterate on in their unique ways, but given the parallel nature of anime production, the directors of #02 & #03 never got to see that blueprint until they were essentially done. As a consequence to that, and despite the slight corrections to it, Makihara’s third episode has a more exhaustive spin to the animation you don’t really see in the rest of the show.

If Yuasa’s work as the director had been a success, what about Yamamoto’s scheme to turn him into a more mainstream sensation? Although time would eventually prove his hunch right, with Yuasa gaining larger mainstream audiences internationally through titles like Devilman Crybaby, he fell short of his goal. Tatami Galaxy did make more of a splash than Yuasa’s preceding shows thanks to the smarter promotional spin and the positive reputation of noitaminA, but the enthusiasm it garnered was for the most part still confined to specialized niche audiences. The brutal pacing of the narration in the first episode certainly felt like a filter for many viewers at the time, as did the structure of the show itself; such is the double-edged sword of embracing idiosyncratic storytelling.

Regardless of not becoming a megahit, the team deemed it a success, and even kept the inertia they had to begin pre-production on a follow-up: the aforementioned The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. However, the project never got any further than Yuasa’s discussions with writer Ueda about how to approach it before the opportunity vanished. Pitches of an adaptation popped up in different places, but once Yuasa saw an opportunity land on his lap again, he seized the opportunity for good this time around. His claims that you can’t simply adapt Morimi’s works in a straightforward way remained the same, but at this point in time, his career had changed completely.

In 2013, Yuasa established studio Science SARU alongside his right hand woman Eunyoung Choi. On paper, their philosophy solidified the pillars of the director’s vision, providing the perfect environment for him to continue evolving in his preferred direction. SARU’s pipeline is based on something they call digitally assisted animation, which consists of building around Flash as a tool to easily create smooth movement between keys in place—though not completely removing—the traditional stage of in-betweening. Yuasa, who always preferred small teams so that everyone could be on the same page, is meant to benefit from this efficiency to lead more in-house focused crews rather than having to scramble to gather larger groups of freelancers. This also allows him to take his wish to find fresh new talent by cherrypicking international talent and establishing his studio as a multicultural hub, where to this day animators from many countries work side by side. Ideally, their efficient pipeline would also allow those employees to maintain much healthier work-life balances.

Years later, we know that not everything has worked out as smoothly. This last point in particular has been, when the studio is at its lowest—or rather at its busiest—kind of an abject failure. Yuasa reached new heights of popularity, but in doing so his work piled up to the point of often betraying the goals of the studio. It’s worth noting that Yuasa, a noted workaholic himself, averaged one major project every 2 years before the foundation of SARU; a pace you could already consider fast given his tendency to create original or otherwise outlandish works. Once his studio kicked into high gear, though, that pacing got closer to 2 big projects a year, which is by no means a manageable increase even in an efficient environment like SARU. That is the situation of high highs and low lows where Tatami Galaxy’s spiritual successor finally came to fruition.

For what it’s worth and despite being released in the same year as another Science SARU film in Lu Over the Wall, their take on Walk On Girl seems to have weathered the storm rather well. They were able to maintain a fairly small and focused team, like Yuasa always prefers to have. The effects of SARU’s pipeline, however, are immediately clear to those who watch the film. The very first scene already makes it clear that even if the timing of the animation still more or less defaults to the 4s, the spacing is much more even and smooth-looking. There are many sequences that make blatant use of the new Flash tools, most notable with the smooth zooming in and out to change perspectives, which are now much more true to life. The aesthetic is generally much cleaner as a result as well, even with the appearance of sketchy masters such as Shinya Ohira.

It would be dishonest to imply that the stark stylistic changes all come down to the studio’s methodology, however. Walk On Girl is by all means a more standard-looking film, having done away with the quirkiest tricks that Yuasa had originally come up with to emulate the effect of Morimi’s prose; one of the most notable ones being the loss of real photography and thus of Kyoto itself, despite being set in the same place and featuring all sorts of cameos. Much of this, though, also corresponds to the type of story he was tackling this time. Walk on Girl is the most vivid night you could ever imagine, an ode to the fun adventures that an alcohol-fueled escapade can pack. Quite far from the muted worldview of Tatami Galaxy, which covered all sorts of wacky happenings but was filtered through the eyes of a disillusioned youngster.

Yuasa was also mindful of the format, intending to make his return to cinema make good use of the type of extravagant animation you can’t take for granted on TV. While the jerky animation of Tatami Galaxy had been deployed as deliberate friction to give it character, he took things in the exact opposite direction to make use of the smoother timing inherent to modern SARU and the more ambitious scope of a theatrical project. Rather than in the most action-packed scenes, this is most memorable in the thorough minutiae, a type of animation excellence that is plentiful in this movie despite never having been a factor in Tatami Galaxy. This new approach peaks with Norio Matsumotoa recurring ace—and his outrageously funny musical act; a thorough yet not overly sanitized animation spectacle which captures the quirky spirit of Morimi’s writing from a different angle than Tatami Galaxy did.

After Walk On Girl’s departure from Tatami Galaxy’s original style, one would assume that any sequel would simply stray even further away. If you added to that the news that Yuasa would no longer be in charge of the project, then it’d be as good as confirmed—if the genius behind the original had moved on, no one could replicate Tatami Galaxy’s highly specific charm. And yet here we are in the year 2022, with an anime adaptation of Tatami Time Machine Blues that you could stylistically slide into the original series without having anyone bat an eye. As unbelievable as that may sound, this once again directly relates to the context of the production; or rather, it relates to a certain someone’s ability to remain unaffected by the context.

When talking about the production of Tatami Galaxy, we brought up Yuasa’s attempt to attract fresh directorial talent. One such person heard about the project from a friend, and having been a fan of Yuasa’s works for a while, he let it be known that he would be up for the challenge and was then formally invited. At the time, he had yet to direct a single episode on TV, as his only experience in the role was in a DVD extra for Umi Monogatari. Taking on the job would mean being surrounded by legends and veterans who were already very used to working alongside Yuasa and his unusual methods, quite an intimidating prospect for a young newbie.

If you were to look at his episodes and listen to his words after that, though, you wouldn’t get that impression at all. Tatami Galaxy #06 departed from Yuasa’s production practices in some ways, switching the small team for a large crowd of young animators invited by the episode director, but was otherwise one of the most on-point iterations of the ideas that Yuasa had laid out as blueprints in the first episode. That didn’t stifle his originality either; one of the funniest scenes in the episode, a very amusing representation of the protagonist’s virgin panic, was an adlib sequence where they fumbled a real-life key as his anthropomorphized manhood rampages. His closing words on Tatami Galaxy’s fanbook were that he approached the project because he felt like there would be lots of freedom when working with Yuasa. And regardless of all that pressure and the weight of expectations, he walked off the project feeling like he indeed had been granted all the freedom he wanted. Years later, he looks back on it to say that it’s not just that Yuasa is open to individual creators embracing their own idiosyncrasies, but that he deliberately builds a sturdy structure that won’t collapse even when young creators experiment in their own ways.

The name of that director was Shingo Natsume, now widely considered one of the most brilliant minds in anime. His impressive resume includes the likes of Space Dandy, One-Punch Man, ACCA13, Sonny Boy, and most recently, a certain title by the name of Tatami Time Machine Blues.

If you were to look at that resume without any of this surrounding context, you might not sense much of a link between Natsume and Yuasa. After this experience on Tatami Galaxy, they were reunited precisely for Walk On Girl, but they haven’t been able to work together otherwise as both of them have become increasingly busy project leaders. And yet, interviews like the one Seiyuu MEN conducted make it clear that Natsume doesn’t just hold that experience on Tatami Galaxy very dearly, having wished that his time within that team never ended, but that his vision of animation and what makes an ideal director are very close to what Yuasa himself represents. It’s only in retrospect that Natsume has been able to grasp just how influential he has been on him, and how special of a project Tatami Galaxy was. It’s no surprise, then, that when Eunyoung Choi—another comrade-in-arms during that production—invited him to direct its sequel, Natsume was delighted to accept.

It’s this very particular distance between the director, the work, and the studio that ends up explaining why Time Machine Blues feels the way it does. Nostalgia appears to be the word that comes to Natsume’s mind when it comes to this title; nostalgia for its characters, its world, and also for the specific texture of Yuasa’s Tatami Galaxy. Contrary to Walk on Girl, this genuine sequel feels cut from the exact same cloth as the original, both when it comes to the major traits that defined Yuasa’s adaptations and even its smallest mannerisms.

Although different types of stories at their core, under Natsume’s boards in particular, Time Machine Blues’ pacing accelerates to the frantic levels of the original. It’s once again deeply rooted in its setting in Kyoto, with a return of the real footage—filtered, and made to coexist with the rest of the assets with an again muted palette. Perspectives are once again deliberately warped, and gone is the clinical finishing. While its predecessor had felt very much subject to the evolution of Yuasa’s own career and his methodology at Science SARU, Natsume is essentially an outsider to this project whose vision is rooted in Yuasa’s older work. He makes no intent to maximize the studio’s smooth, Flash-based pipeline, which marks a return to the charmingly jumpy animation with an indie flair to it.

At the end of the day, though, Time Machine Blues is not Tatami Galaxy, and it’s definitely not 2010 anymore. For as open as Natsume is about his influences, and as much as he intends to weaponize the nostalgia for the original series, his understanding of the material and what Yuasa’s worldview represents wouldn’t have let him simply retrace old steps.

While he can use fast cutting to increase the pace, Time Machine Blues is a fundamentally different story. It was originally based on Summer Time Machine Blues, a play and subsequent film by Tatami Galaxy’s anime scriptwriter Ueda, and later ported into the world of Tatami as a novel by Morimi himself. When it comes to its anime adaptation and regardless of Disney’s marketing, it was very much conceptualized as a movie, which leaves it in a curious position; less room for individual stylistic turns than in an episodic TV anime, but still with more variability than a standard film. Its narrative is much more frontloaded as well, getting to the mechanics of its gimmick and then playing around with them right off the bat, as opposed to the relative mystery of Tatami Galaxy. Natsume is also mindful of the changing distance between the characters themselves, having asked Akashi to soften up somewhat, and Me to let go of the disaffection that he grew out of in Tatami Galaxy.

It’s also worth noting that Natsume’s circumstances don’t necessarily apply to the rest of the team, especially the in-house directors who have been raised during Yuasa’s modern era. Its effects are uneven within Time Machine Blues’ team, but become rather noticeable with the likes of Fuga Yamashiro—already one of the representative faces of the studio’s youthful direction. Under his storyboards, the visual pacing of the show noticeably slows down, and he repeatedly makes use of the smooth Flash assistance that has characterized his time at the studio. While we’ve made it clear that Yamashiro is quite the interesting director, this is another reminder of how strongly this series is tied to its context; that of its creators, the studio they belong to (or don’t), the works they’re entrusted with, and even larger industry trends. It may seem like a miracle that, after so many years and even after losing its one-of-a-kind director, one of anime’s most idiosyncratic works is receiving a sequel that nails its unique identity to this degree. To some degree, it may very well be one. But after reading the backstory of all these projects, it should hopefully make some sense.

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