Spy x Family key visual
©2023 Toho

Studio: Clover Works x Wit Studio
Distribution: Toho
Based on the manga by: Tatsuya Endo
Streaming: Crunchyroll
Release Date: October 7, 2023

In case you haven’t heard, Spy x Family is a big deal. The Shonen Jump+ manga series by Tatsuya Endo has over 30 million copies in circulation worldwide as of April 2023. The first volume of the series was NPD BookScan’s seventh best-selling graphic novel in the United States through 2022, the second-highest manga on the list. Japan’s tastemaking men’s magazine Brutus included the comic on its “Most Dangerous Manga” list in 2019, alongside excellent series like Ikoku Nikki and stylish sci-fi manga Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow. The anime adaptation has only boosted this series popularity. According to the president of TV Tokyo (per Anime News Network) its second half’s ratings were the “best among all programs on all stations for the July 2022 season.” 

The show’s latest achievement, though, may be its most surprising. The opening credits for the new season of Spy x Family are directed and storyboarded by acclaimed animator Masaaki Yuasa (director of Ping Pong, Inu-Oh and Devilman Crybaby) who left the anime industry to go on hiatus in 2021. I didn’t expect that he would return so soon, or that he would nab a starring role animating a key opening sequence in Shonen Jump’s most popular comedy series. But there he is, a freelancer, performing on the greatest stage imaginable.

Anime fans know Yuasa best for his work at Science SARU, the animation studio he co-founded with versatile animator/director/producer Eunyoung Choi in 2013. While there, he directed television series (Devilman Crybaby), animated feature films (Night is Short, Walk On Girl) and even an episode of Adventure Time.

Of course, Yuasa has done more than just his work with Science SARU. His 2013 short film Kick-Heart was an early anime Kickstarter success, and paved the way for later projects like Little Witch Academia 2. Years before, his television series Kemonozume and Kaiba were among the most stylistically radical television anime of the 2000s. Then there’s Mind Game, a bonkers film that inspired Everything Everywhere All at Once.

The success of Devilman Crybaby on Netflix brought Yuasa to a larger audience. Critics like Emily Yoshida called him “Japan’s most idiosyncratic and exciting animation director” in a piece for Vulture. Later, Yuasa’s 2020 series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! won the Grand Prize of the 24th Japan Media Arts Festival’s animation division. If critics never thought to brand Yuasa as “the next Miyazaki,” as they did for Mamoru Hosada or Makoto Shinkai, it was because they recognized him as an original creative talent. 

Anya freefalls with teacup
©2023 Toho

Just one year later, Yuasa quit Science SARU to go on hiatus. It’s tough from the outside to understand why Yuasa chose to do this after building so much momentum. But longtime fans saw the writing on the wall. Science Saru’s adoption of Flash, which was meant to  improve quality of life for the animators, instead ramped up the speed of production to unsustainable levels. Even a speed demon like Yuasa, who famously storyboarded an episode of Ping Pong a week through its production, could no longer keep up. His last film was 2021’s Inu-Oh, a return to his experimental early career. Then he left.

Yuasa hasn’t been entirely quiet since 2021. This April, he storyboarded an opening credits sequence for Gunma-chan, a series about the official mascot of Gunma Prefecture. He also continued to post funny drawings and animations on his Twitter account.

But his new Spy x Family opening is his biggest project since the Science SARU days. Better yet, it overflows with his trademark exuberance. As the show opening starts, spy / dad Loid, assassin / mom Yor and their adopted telepathic daughter Anya take great big strides as if they were Tex Avery cartoons. In another sequence, Loid’s silhouette pops in and out as he fires his gun, a Kemonozume deep cut.  Even the ending gag, where Loid twice pours tea for Anya in free fall only for Yor to catch it in her cup, is the kind of joke only an animator could think up.

Yuasa isn’t the only prestigious animator to head an opening sequence for Spy x Family. The show’s first credits sequence was handled by Masashi Ishihama, one of the best in the business. The sequence included many of Ishihama’s favorite tricks: integrated credits, multiple screens, silhouettes and even simplified character designs reminiscent of his Encouragement of Climb opening. It nails the balance between the cool and comedic in Spy x Family, even if it’s a bit more restrained than Ishihama’s absolute best work.  

The second opening director, Tetsuro Araki, is best known for self-serious cartoons like Death Note and Attack on Titan. Light comedy isn’t his forte. Yet I’d argue Araki’s opening credits are even better than Ishihama’s. He conjures a world of shadows, leaves and flowers lit up by Loid, Yor and Anya’s shared warmth. A perfect fit for the fall season when the show’s record-breaking second half aired.

Spy x Family attracts these kinds of prestigious artists/animators due to its great popularity. At the same time, it benefits from its connections to top anime studios, like Wit Studio and Clover Works. These two studios feature well-connected producers with an eye for talent and the courage to make unexpected choices. It wasn’t unthinkable that one of them might poach Yuasa.

But I still find it unusual, and perhaps even blasphemous. Yuasa’s Spy x Family opening sequence is his first major contribution to the Shonen Jump behemoth. As someone rooting for Yuasa to keep making weird, quirky stuff, I can’t help but wonder what might happen if he’s  instead swallowed by the anime industry’s biggest players.

Then again, Yuasa built his career on mass-market family entertainment. He contributed setting and character designs to many of the acclaimed Crayon Shin-chan films of the ’90s. His name pops up again and again throughout the popular retro-styled kids anime series Chibi Maruko-chan franchise on episodes, films and opening and ending credits.  A sharp-eyed viewer might even recognize the driving sequence in Yuasa’s opening credits as a variation on a theme he explored in Chibi Maruko-chan. Spy x Family may have more in common with these works at the end of the day than other Jump hits like Jujutsu Kaisen.

Bond dances surrounded by word balloons
©2023 Toho

The modern anime industry grinds up artists with a unique vision. Adaptations are king, fans insist on faithfulness and producers ensure those needs are met. There are alternatives, of course. Music videos and credits sequences allow animators to stretch themselves creatively rather than follow the letter of the source. Yuasa has proven with his Spy x Family opening credits that he’s just as adept at short-form work as he is with film and television. I’d love to see how much more he might get away with.

New episodes of Spy x Family are available for streaming on Crunchyroll. 
Spy x Family volumes 1-9 by Tatsuya Endo are available now from VIZ Media / Shonen Jump, with volume 10 available now for pre-order.