Why this might not seem so easy
A fascinating voice in Japanese animation, cult favourite Masaaki Yuasa is known for his ever-shifting visual style and experimentation. He’s a distinctive directorial voice whose work has covered a huge variety of genres. Having worked in television animation since the 1990s, his work drew exponential international attention following his co-founding of the studio Science SARU with the current head Eunyoung Choi. Together they produced ‘Food Chain’ (2014), a standout episode of the American series Adventure Time, as the studio’s first work, only expanding from there into a number of hit series and feature films.
Aside from his vivid and ever-changing use of colour, the most distinctive quality of Yuasa’s flexible style is how he constantly emphasises flatness in his animation, deliberately avoiding photorealism in favour of explicit cartoonishness. The only images approaching realism are his occasional, experimental interpolation of real photography in his backgrounds. There’s a huge breadth of work to get grips with, so here’s some advice on where to begin.
The best place to start: Mind Game
Masaaki Yuasa’s debut feature as director is also the clearest illustration of his visual sensibilities. A psychedelic display of his cartoonish, freeform style, Mind Game (2004) follows its protagonist from low-key beginnings at a bar all the way into the belly of a whale, where the director unspools the psychology of his characters through eclectic imagery that breaks from a common preconception of what anime looks like. It’s never any one thing, as Yuasa’s film veers from nightmarish depictions of very real and mundane frustrations into full-blown farcical comedy. Beyond the comedy though, it has moments of transcendent sensuality and beauty, such as a sex scene presented as a very literal metamorphosis. The lovers simultaneously transform with and into one another in a manner that is as sensuous and expressive as it is strange.
What to watch next
Another fine entry point is one of Yuasa’s latest and greatest series, Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! (2020-), an ode to the pleasures and frustrations of his own profession. Adapted from a manga of the same name by Sumito Oowara, it’s an anime about making anime, and that meta angle makes it perhaps Yuasa’s most friendly series for newcomers, due in part to its explanation of its own process. The central trio of girls all realise their disparate interests through their creation of animation together, exploring their idealised world through that art. The show’s love for its own medium is infectious: it’s full of delightful references to the form’s foremost creators while creating fun from even the most mundane details of this particular profession.
Yuasa is capable of applying his idiosyncratic style to anything and everything, including a crowd-pleaser romcom like Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017). The film turns the 2006 novel by Tomihiko Morimi into a spiritual sequel to Yuasa’s 2010 TV series The Tatami Galaxy – also adapted by a book from Morimi – with new characters joining familiar ones. Night Is Short follows a young man only known as ‘Senpai’, who nurses a crush on ‘The Girl with Black Hair’.
The film (and the series) directly lifts Yusuke Nakamura’s illustrations from his work on Morimi’s novels, preserving their striking two-dimensional silhouettes. Yuasa compresses the book’s year-long timescale into a single, wild night of merriment and lots of gatecrashing in Kyoto. The two main characters continually cross paths across the drunken sprawl of a night, both feeling lonely despite the constant company they keep.
The director’s cartoonish visual approach marries well with the story’s fanciful tone, its protagonists frequently carried off in surreal circumstances with each new weirdo they meet on their long night out, each encounter full of quickfire jokes and strange non-sequiturs. If this is to your liking, waste no time in watching The Tatami Galaxy itself, which similarly unpacks the protagonist’s malaise with a delightful, cosmic concept: every episode rewinds back to the beginning of the story, and sees him pick an alternative path at university, in search of the ideal campus life.
The 2D, digitally drawn style of Yuasa that he continued to experiment with during his tenure as head of the studio Science SARU proved applicable to a wide breadth of stories, perhaps most strikingly with Devilman Crybaby (2018). A breakout hit for Netflix’s then-slight lineup of anime productions, it’s a complete tonal pivot from the whimsical romances of Mind Game, The Tatami Galaxy and Night Is Short. It’s a demented reimagining of Go Nagai’s classic Devilman (1972 to 1973) series, delving explicitly into new themes that Yuasa felt were in keeping with the spirit of the manga.
The series transplants the story from the 1970s to the 21st century, following childhood friends Ryo and Akira as they seek to rescue humanity from demons. To do so, Akira becomes ‘Devilman’, a fusion of demon powers with a human soul. Where Nagai used the story as anti-war allegory, Yuasa transforms it into a contemplation on bigotry. Fear of demons stands in for fear of the other, exacerbated by misinformation and culminating in an overwhelming, apocalyptic onslaught that won’t leave the mind any time soon. Yuasa’s freeform approach is here filtered though a wildly gory, psychosexual horror lens, in a story that frequently touches on queer themes in unexpected ways.
If extreme violence isn’t your thing, his series Ping Pong: The Animation (2014) applies a similarly wild, freeform experimental sensibility to sports anime. It’s almost punkish in its rough edges and expressionist approach to a seemingly mundane sport. As the series unspools the psychology of its different characters, ping pong somehow truly feels like life and death. Its visual representations of their state of mind leads to one of the very best anime series of the 2010s.
Where not to start
By no means a bad show, Kemonozume (2006) is simply harder to come by. As a sort of precursor to the more adult storytelling of Devilman Crybaby and sporting an intentionally rough style, it’s worth seeking out when possible. It marks the beginning of his longtime collaboration with Science SARU’s current CEO Eunyoung Choi, who worked as a producer and animator on many of Yuasa’s subsequent projects.
For completists, his peculiar dystopian sci-fi series Kaiba (2008) is one to look forward to, even if the relative opacity of its storytelling might be a minor roadblock to anyone unfamiliar with Yuasa’s work.
Super Shiro (2019-) is a fun oddity also worth seeking out, a harkening back to the director’s roots as an animator for the popular series Crayon Shin-chan in the 1990s, but it’s perhaps not newcomer material. He has a couple more romances on his CV, including the funny, sweet, melancholic Ride Your Wave (2019), which sees a woman deal with her grief over her boyfriend’s untimely death through the mysterious appearance of his ghost in various bodies of water.
2017’s Lu over the Wall sees him returning to the same well of whimsicality and musicality as in his Adventure Time episode and Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. It’s a loose adaptation of The Little Mermaid that recalls Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo (2008).