May 9, 2018
Masaaki Yuasa’s Breakthrough Year
Michael Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh discuss how Masaaki Yuasa’s work is being made available for the first time and introducing an exciting talent to Western audiences.
Have you heard of Masaaki Yuasa?
The Japanese director has been making animated films and TV series for over a decade. His first feature film, Mind Game, has taken on a cult following due to its psychedelic visuals and outrageous story. He has directed some of the most acclaimed Anime series in recent years, including Kaiba, Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong, and this year’s Devilman Crybaby. With the help of GKids, Yuasa’s films are finally going to be hitting multiplexes, including his latest, Lu Over the Wall.
Lu Over the Wall has been positioned as Yuasa’s breakthrough to Western audiences and it is fitting because Lu is his most accessible work. The film follows Kai, a teenage boy who is having trouble fitting in. The only thing he finds joy in is making music and uploading his songs to the internet. Even though the local kids invite him to join their middle-school band, Kai is indifferent about the arrangement. That is until he meets a little mermaid named Lu that changes his life forever.
Lu hasn’t just brought joy to Kai, but to everyone who sees her film. Dub director and actor Michael Sinterniklaas and actress Stephanie Sheh are responsible for the English Dub of Lu Over the Wall, and we talked about how much the movie impressed them. Sheh, who has voice credits in hundreds of Anime including the voice of Sailor Moon and Mitsuha in Your Name said, “I first saw Lu Over the Wall at the Animation is Film festival. And I loved it immediately. It just made me really happy.” Dub director and co-lead Sinterniklaas added, “It’s a film full of joy but in this really specific way.” There is something magical that bubbles at the surface of all of Yuasa’s best work and Lu has that in spades.
Sinterniklaas and Sheh weren’t shy about their admiration for Yuasa’s work. “These were original specific characters that I believed. Yuasa is really crafty. The way he structures his narrative and the action is surprising, not formulaic. So while the story is a simple one in the way it’s told, it has enough surprises to keep you on your toes and make it feel fresh,” explained Sinterniklaas. One of the major selling points of the movie is just how carefree Lu can be. “She’s very innocent and she sees the best in everybody. She’s like a child. She has all the good things children have before they are corrupted,” added Sheh. Lu has this ability to brighten up anybody who approaches her and most of that is due to her exaggerated movements and design. It is hard to imagine Lu being anything else than she is, so when Sinterniklaas mentioned that Yuasa’s original idea for Lu “was something more akin to a vampire,” it is simply to crazy to fathom. Although, that does explain Lu’s constant need to bite things.
Incredible in their own right, Mind Game and Devilman Crybaby, aren’t exactly family-friendly entertainment, especially considering the extreme violence and nudity on display in the latter. That doesn’t mean that Devilman Crybaby has hurt Yuasa’s reputation in the West, rather it speaks to the level of talent. Sheh shared as much when she talked about the screening of Lu at Sundance. “People talked about his other work and talked about Devilman and he made a point due to the young kids in the audience, “please do not watch it. If you like Lu Over the Wall, please don’t go watch Devilman Crybaby. They are very different.“ Instead, this is an opportunity for new audiences to associate Lu with Yuasa and that is more significant to the directors’ appeal in the West. Sinterniklaas said that “Lu really has broad appeal. It isn’t a kid film that adults can sit through. We got a lot of attention for it and I met an executive from a major film company in Hollywood that said it was her favorite film of [Sundance].” It is easy to look at the promotional materials for Lu and get a sense of Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, which Sinterniklaas believes is fantastic for the film, even if he prefers Lu. “When people compare it to Ponyo, I think wow that’s amazing Ghibli is so great. But to me, I’ll take Lu.”
I made sure to ask Sinterniklaas and Sheh what goes into the English Dub process on a feature-length film. The key is that performances already exist for those characters and you have to retrofit new performances. The script has to go through multiple revisions in order to make it acceptable to not only the licensors and studio involved, but so that audiences will understand the cultural differences in the material. What surprised me most of all was the casting call that goes into this line of work. They have dwindled hundreds of auditions down to a select few, then they typically share those with the licensors and make the final call. A lot of time and commitment goes into giving those animated characters English voices.
Lu Over the Wall is exciting because it is a joyous film from Yuasa that all-audiences can enjoy. That is a sticking point for a lot of Anime features that fall into tropes that American audiences don’t connect with. Sheh shared that sentiment, “When I think about Lu, it doesn’t really fall into any Anime tropes. The storyline is fresh and unexpected. I didn’t really predict what would happen in this film.” There is a magic inherent in this film that simply has to be experienced and Sinterniklaas said “Lu is a bright beam of sunshine. It makes you happy in a way no other film has made me feel. I felt disarmed, enlivened, and a sense of joy and happiness. Whenever I had to watch it, I generally looked forward to it. What Lu leaves you with is super uplifting and I think it’s a really good time for that.”
Soon audiences in the Western hemisphere will be able to experience what audiences in the Eastern hemisphere have known all along. Masaaki Yuasa is a talent well worth keeping an eye on and 2018 is his big unveiling. Along with Lu Over the Wall, Mind Game and Night is Short, Walk on Girl will be hitting theaters for the first time. There are plenty of riches in store for fans of Anime and Yuasa’s TV Anime series. There is perhaps no better way to get acquainted than with Lu Over the Wall.