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Riding Masaaki Yuasa’s Wave in the Streaming Age

The prolific Japanese animator was born for the streaming age and has helped bolster Netflix’s anime offerings

Science Saru/Ringer illustration

Masaaki Yuasa outpaces his peers’ production and his fans’ ability to keep up with his new films and TV series. The Japanese animator and his studio, Science Saru, rush from one release date to the next. Most recently, Yuasa directed Ride Your Wave, a devastating romantic comedy that screened in a limited theatrical release—for one night only—in North America. He also directed the 12-episode series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, now broadcasting in Japan and available on the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. He’s adapting the classic disaster novel Japan Sinks into an updated 10-episode series, Japan Sinks: 2020, due to premiere later this year on Netflix. Yuasa’s all over the place. He’s busy.

Eizouken! follows three teenage girls, Asakusa, Kanamori, and Mizusaki, who started their high school’s AV club—the titular eizouken—which they hope to develop into a world-class animation studio. The girls don’t commit to any one genre. For their short-form, schoolwide debut, they illustrate a young girl wearing a skirt and a gas mask, wielding a machete and a grappling hook, who sprints up cliffs as she battles a sentient tank in a rough, dusty wilderness. On paper, the story is unruly, but it’s disciplined in its execution. The girls must reconcile their imaginations and skill with the many practical considerations—budget, schedule, technology, physics, fatigue, etc.—that constrain animators.

Asakusa, Kanamori, and Mizusaki develop a splashy, athletic house style. They draw rough, post-apocalyptic landscapes and model quirky heroes. They design preposterous vehicles and shoot wild movements at wide angles. They work in bold colors, illuminating an otherwise sparse and excruciating profession that keeps them scribbling into the night. The girls don’t just draw; they evangelize to a school overrun with censors, rivals, and skeptics. The student council, run by too-cool cynics, assembles a schoolwide screening for the AV club’s debut feature, Hold That Machete Tight, to determine the club’s eligibility for school funds. The tank wrecks the auditorium. The crowd gawks. The student council approves. The girls are just getting started. They channel their creator Yuasa’s own world-conquering, entrepreneurial fervor in the digital age. Before he founded Science Saru, Yuasa made Kick-Heart, a legendary short that began as a Kickstarter campaign.

Yuasa has been making incomparable titles at a madman’s pace for the past 15 years. Among animators, he dominates the post-streaming outlook on TV and movies. Makoto Shinkai dominates the box office. Yuasa dominates the internet. His film Ride Your Wave premiered in North American theaters on February 19 as Eizouken! aired its seventh episode in a global simulcast. His previous movie, Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, had a limited theatrical release in North America, premiering in August 2018, several months after his TV series Devilman Crybaby premiered as a Netflix original. For the past few years, Netflix has struggled to render its limited anime library indispensable for anime fans. The company has made acquisitions, adaptations, and anime-adjacent productions: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Death Note, Aggretsuko, Neo Yokio, Castlevania, Cowboy Bebop, Violet Evergarden, Carole & Tuesday. It’s a mixed record marked by curious successes, such as Aggretsuko, and critical catastrophes, such as Death Note. For Netflix, Devilman Crybaby was the breakthrough. It’s a vulgar, bewildering series adapted from Go Nagai’s old Devilman manga. It is Netflix’s most acclaimed anime experiment to date. “Netflix doesn’t release numbers,” Yuasa said in 2018, “but I have been told that they’re pretty good. I think it’s one of my works that has been seen the most.” Devilman Crybaby expanded Yuasa’s audience as decisively as the series idealized the company’s influence within animation. In October, Netflix announced the forthcoming Japan Sinks: 2020 as the company’s next partnership with Yuasa and Science Saru.

In the meantime, Crunchyroll streams Eizouken! and Japanese national broadcaster NHK airs the series. Presumably, Netflix will stream Eizouken! sooner or later: Years before Netflix bought Yuasa’s TV series, The Tatami Galaxy, it streamed on Crunchyroll. Of course, Crunchyroll serves anime to Western otaku while Netflix serves anime to a much more general audience. Netflix doesn’t compete with Crunchyroll so much as Netflix competes with Disney+, which streams the studio’s proprietary TV series and movies, including its classic American animation titles. (Netflix streamed several Disney titles in the years prior to Disney+’s launch in November 2019.) Netflix streams anime, and now it produces anime, but it doesn’t prioritize the medium as comprehensively as Crunchyroll does. While Eizouken! dominates the Crunchyroll homepage, Netflix doesn’t offer such prominence for its own animated programs. It’s a commercial predicament that the company’s critics might summarize, derisively, as “the Netflix model”: Netflix spends untold sums to license anime titles from the world’s most byzantine production companies only to bury these beneath a homepage banner determined to promote Stranger Things above all other offerings.

Yuasa outpaces the binge-watchers. He’s conquering the streaming services, though the streaming services have yet to conquer his catalog; Crunchyroll and Netflix have both dropped The Tatami Galaxy, presumably due to lapses in the regional licensing rights. Yuasa has spent the past decade channel surfing between Netflix, Crunchyroll, and Funimation, another streaming service that prioritizes anime. Netflix will never lose the streaming rights for Devilman Crybaby. But what about Yuasa’s other works? Yuasa was born for the streaming age. Which streaming services can keep pace with him? In The Tatami Galaxy, Yuasa’s unnamed protagonist—a foolish college boy—speaks at a rapid, anxious clip that renders his many soliloquies as a rush. The subtitles can barely keep up. There’s no English dub, by the way. In The Tatami Galaxy, Yuasa dared the Western viewer to choose between following his dense text and beholding his bold, boozy splashes. Subtitles or not, Yuasa challenges everyone else, including his own distributors, to keep up.