Filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa possesses a singular, kinetic vision. Imbuing a musical language into his visuals, he continually creates some of the most striking anime of the past two-plus decades. Forgoing form and hyper-realism for a gonzo, energized approach to animation, his projects instill a buzzing hyperactivity in each frame. From the constant contortions of faces, the line work that thrums with an electrical current, to the refusal to adhere to proportions or reality, Yuasa’s work stands out. Yuasa’s films and series are a testament to an exhilarating innovator who actively refutes conformity.
Yuasa, through madness and visual mayhem, anchors his projects in identity. Who a person is, what they’re missing, the threat to the longevity of their memory — his projects all explore these themes. In Kaiba, the protagonist awakens to a hole in their chest. Tatami Galaxy’s Watashi believes that if he were to find the proper outlet, he’d find his perfect, deserved future. Inu-Oh explicitly deals with the masks we’re forced to wear to fit in a community determined to strip the names of those who don’t fit society’s current doctrine from history.
The chaos of his work doesn’t always lean heavily into narrative density. Whether it’s a sheer visual spectacle or a moving portrait of lost souls destined to find each other throughout the centuries, his work remains mesmerizing and singular. Daunting though it may be, here is every feature film and television series by Masaaki Yuasa ranked—special note, however, his Adventure Time episode and his two short films, Happy Machine and Kick-Heart, both sublime.
12. Kemonozume (2006)
Kemonozume is one of those titles by Yuasa that is lost beneath his other greats. Brazen, bold, and unflinching in its carnage, the series plays with avant-garde, experimental animation techniques in a love story between monster and monster hunter.
Many dub it the filmmaker’s most underrated, with the series committing to his sense of expressionism over realism that continues to define his art style. With bold colors and a hard R rating, the series might not be for everyone, but it’s yet another strong addition to his filmography.
11. Japan Sinks (2020)
Despite the full-fledged disaster story at his fingertips, Japan Sinks plays it oddly safe. There’s a conservatism to Yuasa’s animation in the Netflix series that dulls the effect. The talent is still apparent, and nothing will ever make this filmmaker’s work unwatchable.
That said, it misses the spark of his very best. Based on the 1973 novel by Japanese writer Sakyo Komatsu, the series follows a family fighting for survival following massive earthquakes that throw Japan into complete mayhem. It’s undoubtedly emotional, and when he swings big, the moments land with crushing brutality.
10. Kaiba (2008)
Lending itself to a more Western artistic style, Kaiba is an oddity. A series that would make for a strong double feature with the 2015 film World of Tomorrow by Don Hertzfeldt, Kaiba digs deep into earthy science fiction. Created, written, and directed by Yuasa, the story takes place in a strange world, and an uneasy melancholy fuels the narrative forward. Following the character Warp, who wears a locket with a picture of a girl he can’t remember, the series deals with a universe where changing bodies and trafficking memories is possible.
The old-school animation style (think Mickey Mouse on Steamboat Willie) only manages to make the series more uncomfortable, strengthening the bizarre state of their lives and their unruly, lawless land. There’s something nihilistic about a future where bodies and memories can be commodified and traded in for new. It’s good, and the style is endlessly captivating (the opening credits alone are a doozy.) It simply is up against the rest of the director’s work, which is revelatory.
9. Night is Short, Walk On Girl (2017)
ADHD in visual form, Night is Short, Walk on Girl is a spectacle but lacks the narrative strength of his best works. The series follows a university student who takes part in an alcohol-fueled odyssey of partying throughout the night. She runs into increasingly peculiar characters, but her path is undeterred as she looks to satiate an insatiable appetite for booze, food, and socializing. Based on the 2006 novel of the same name written by Tomihiko Morimi and illustrated by Yusuke Nakamura, the film is the “spiritual successor” of The Tatami Galaxy. The madcap adventures of the unnamed girl and her male suitor are possessed with the expectant rebellion. Yuasa adds the perfect hedonistic touch to a story that calls for mayhem as we observe a bar crawl through hell.
8. Lu Over the Wall (2017)
From here it gets difficult. Yuasa’s Disney equivalent, Lu Over the Wall is confectionery sweetness cut with a requisite acidic edge. The story of discovering your voice stands true to many Yuasa projects. Yuasa has always possessed a musicality in his films, regardless of whether the projects themselves revolve around music.
This stylistic flare works perfectly in Lu Over the Wall, which bubbles with barely contained energy. The innate stylistic touch points, the rough lines, and the smooth colors culminate in a work that is aggressively infectious. With complete musical sequences where characters lose themselves to sound and dance, the film combines vital features of the director’s style and enhances them.
7. Ride Your Wave (2019)
Despite the magical realism that touches it, Ride Your Wave is still somehow Yuasa’s most straightforward film. That said, there are moments when his inability to adhere to classic animation styles is apparent. We see it in the way grief seeps into Hinako’s physicality, the direction capturing wringing, shaking hands, and toes that dig into the floor.
We see it in the imperfections and the too-long proportions, our protagonists charmingly dangly. Even the omurice Hinako tries (and fails) to perfect is given an electric current. Ride Your Wave is a moving story about the ways grief follows us and threatens to consume us. Minato dies, but it’s Hinako who spends the movie drowning. Still, while the heartache never leaves the DNA of the film, the story finds hope in the suggestion of healing as Hinako seeks out her strength again.
6. Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! (2020)
It’s become cliche to say that a film or story is a “love letter” to some other craft form. But there’s no way around it in Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!, which is, undoubtedly, both a love letter to creation and, specifically, anime. Based on the manga written and illustrated by Sumito Ōwara, the series follows three high schoolers who are trying to make an anime short film. From finding space to make their film to promoting it, each episode takes pains to depict the monotony of making art.
The magic in the series, which Yuasa brings to life so beautifully, is that it never fails to capture the love, too. We, too, are caught up in the girls’ plight as we watch their film grow more assured, learning techniques that embolden their vision. The series demonstrates Yuasa’s restraint. Still, the story finds movement in the artist’s inability to keep still. It’s a series and story that knows that calluses and ink smudges are the signs of passion hard worked for.
5. Devilman Crybaby (2018)
Caffeinated nihilism, Devilman Crybaby is a prowling nightmare. The carnage of the first episode alone, as we watch Akira Fudo be overtaken by a “Devilman,” is proof enough. Based on Go Nagai’s classic manga series Devilman — the sheer talent on display is dizzying.
An exercise in excess, everything is too much in Devilman Crybaby. The emotions, the violence, and the sex, the series is a furious, ravenous cacophony of stimulating sounds and visuals. Tackling themes of bigotry, puberty, sexuality, love, and LGBTQ+ identity, the series never comes across as cold despite the heavy topics and rampant brutality. Instead, a messy, beating heart lies buried beneath the bloodshed, making the ending all the more devastating because of it. It hurts because we care.
4. Tatami Galaxy (2010)
The Tatami Galaxy is a dizzying, rapid-fire exploration of discovering yourself. Following a university student who, after encountering a demigod, relieves three years in order to win a girl’s heart, the series is an unmistakable masterpiece. As Watashi desperately, foolishly, seeks out his “rose-colored” college years, he’s constantly met with the follies of his shortcomings.
Time resets, but his destiny is set to touch similar touchstones no matter the new club he joins. Akashi, the girl of his dreams, and the impish Ozu, who believes he’s connected to Watashi by the “black thread of fate,” constantly appear, though not always beholden to Watashi’s wants.
The series finds a greater sense of authenticity due to its Kyoto setting and the city touchstones baked into the animation. That it pivots into sheer absurdism without ever losing the sense of place indicates just how present Kyoto needed to be in the story itself. The surreal aspects don’t detract from the character’s nighttime drinking along the Kamo River; they simply elevate it.
3. Mind Game (2004)
The film that put him on the map, Mind Game, is pure anarchy. Based on Robin Nishi’s manga of the same name, the film is an eclectic whirlwind of animation styles. Refusing to play it safe, Yuasa’s directorial debut asserts a wild approach to animation and storytelling.
Unconcerned with linear narratives or cohesive art styles, Mind Game relishes in freeform. A madcap adventure film, the story follows an unlikable hero who spends most of the movie in a state of purgatory. Combining hand-drawn techniques with digital, the film perfectly encompasses that state of limbo. Everything fluctuates, and nothing has stability. To watch and enjoy Mind Game is to relent control and see where the ride takes you.
2. Ping Pong the Animation (2014)
Plenty could watch a film or anime series by Yuasa and (incorrectly) call the animation ugly. It’s understandable to a degree. The line work is crude, and the character designs sloppy, as Yuasa has always been less bothered by how a character looks versus how they move.
But beauty is abundant in his work. This distortion of visuals and discordance of the crude and beautiful comes to a peak in his series Ping Pong the Animation. There’s the same level of rivalry and grandiosity in the storytelling expected from a sports anime. That it achieves this all through the dexterous sport of ping pong makes it shine greater.
The miniseries follows two high school boys, Peco and Smile, who have been friends since childhood despite their differences. Gifted in table tennis, they both find mentors who push them to compete to their full potential. On the surface, it is a straightforward underdog story, but Ping Pong the Animation is an engrossing coming-of-age fable about the necessity of challenging ourselves and our ambitions. Combined with the talented Kensuke Ushio score, the series takes on a whimsical tone despite the kinetic flashes of animation. The messy and unruly tone pairs perfectly with the quiet rebellion of the lead characters.
1. Inu-Oh (2022)
Based on the novel Tales of the Heike: INU-OH by Hideo Furukawa, Yuasa casts his kinetic, relentless vision on 14th-century Japan. In a rock-opera anime about the significance of remembering where we come from and what led us to where we are, the film is timeless. The story follows Inu-Oh, who is born with physical characteristics that have adults forcing him to wear a mask. He meets Tomona, a blind biwa player, and together, the two outcasts learn to create music that emboldens them to reckon with their history and boldly declare their presence no matter the circumstance.
Outlandish designs and the accentuated style perforating all of Yuasa’s works marry with the aching melancholy that settles over Inu-Oh. These characters attempt to unburden themselves from tradition in a period where any stray from the norm faces contempt or violence. It’s a rallying, euphoric cry for outcasts of the world and those who’ve wandered society’s shadows. With a centerpiece and showstopping musical moments that radicalize the historical setting, the film is fully immersive and hypnotic.
Possessing playful surrealism in a story that pulls at the heartstrings as it nears its end, Inu-Oh intoxicates through color and music. Yuasa begs the question of humanity’s relevant, cyclical nature as we act to change before panicking about moving too quickly. As our characters slowly regain stolen humanity through music, performance, and storytelling, their defiance and ours grow at the idea of silencing them. The gravity of being seen and heard is significant, so abundantly clear, both in Inu-Oh and in life. They told their stories, and in infamy and death, their voices powered through.
Masaaki Yuasa carves out his own distinctive style by following his own instincts and rules. From tumultuous, energized direction, to stark color contrasts and kinetic action, his work throughout his career has been beautifully, brazenly, singular.