Masaaki Yuasa: Five Films Blu-ray Review: Time to Ride the Wave

Just in time for next year’s 20th anniversary of anime director Masaaki Yuasa’s first feature film, GKIDS and Shout! Factory have released this comprehensive box set of all of his films to date. The new set features stunning original artwork throughout the packaging designed by Yuasa himself, a 13” x 21” poster of the cover art, and an exclusive 60-page retrospective book including excerpts from his sketchbook. If you’re only somewhat familiar with his work, now is a great time to ride his wave.

Yuasa launched his feature film career with the rough but wildly inventive Mind Game in 2004. It’s bursting with creativity and innovative visuals, one of those films where plot is secondary to spectacle. Yuasa incorporated occasional live-action footage into the anime mix, or animated still photographs, adding them into his explosion of imaginative energy. The story is ostensibly about a loser who gets shot while failing to defend his childhood crush, fighting God’s direction to walk to the light as he struggles to return to Earth. Mostly though, it’s about Yuasa showing off, releasing his unfettered vision through a psychedelic, no-holds-barred animation extravaganza.

After toiling away in various anime TV series and shorts, most significantly his series Kaiba (2008), The Tatami Galaxy (2010), and Ping Pong (2014), Yuasa finally returned to the feature film director’s chair with two releases in 2017. Much like his debut, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl centers on its lead character’s surreal encounters, but this time the focus is on a girl instead of the lovestruck boy obsessed with her. Yuasa is still playing fast and loose with character models and animation styles, but exhibits far greater restraint as he serves the story instead of his imagination.

Lu Over the Wall stars an average middle-school boy who encounters a loony little mermaid named Lu, making this one feel more than a little like a derivative Ponyo. The overall animation style exhibits a new maturity for Yuasa, with the human world and character models fairly locked in, and only the unshackled id of the excitable Lu making the animation go haywire. Despite its comparatively conservative nature, I’m a fan of the film, with Lu’s goofy antics good for plenty of laughs.

With Ride Your Wave, Yuasa fully conforms to a polished, conventional anime style, aside from characters that are stretched longer than normal. The story focuses on a young couple torn apart by the man’s death by drowning, until he mysteriously gains the ability to return to her life in any watery surface, leading them to explore the nature and longevity of their new relationship. It’s a sweet and well-crafted story, and about as far removed from the bizarre Mind Game as one could possibly get, exhibiting the extent of Yuasa’s amazing range.

Yuasa’s most recent film, Inu-oh, is also his most technically accomplished, a slick, exceptionally animated rock opera that represents the sum total of his feature film career. He incorporates his brilliantly unhinged early vision in frequent musical sequences, punctuating the story of a performer who drives a sea change in musical styles in ancient Japan. This is the one that I would point to as definitive Yuasa, a beautifully crafted production with an unpredictable wild side.

All of the films look great on Blu-ray, even the choppy Mind Game, with 1080p HD widescreen presentation in original aspect ratios. Audio is offered in both English and Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 for all feature films except Mind Game (Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 only), with the set including an English dub of The Night is Short, Walk On Girl for the first time on Blu-ray. Inu-oh also includes a rare English DVS Dolby Digital 5.1 alternate track for anyone looking to get a virtual 5.1 experience from supported 2-speaker or soundbar setups.

The five-film set is packed with so much Yuasa content that it stretches to six discs. Special features include filmmaker commentaries for three of the films, two short films by Yuasa, a look at Yuasa drawing characters from three of the films, filmmaker interviews, and A Night Out with Yuasa where he discusses his career and more at a Los Angeles speakeasy. It’s a treasure trove of content for Yuasa fans, and a great reminder of the impressive anime legacy he has crafted throughout his career, especially within his four-film run between 2017-2021. Whether you’re new to his films or a long-time fan, it’s time to ride the Yuasa wave with this exceptional box set.

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Steve Geise

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