There are animators, anime directors, and studio heads, and then there’s Masaaki Yuasa: one of a handful of globally renowned animation auteurs who only seems to get more beloved the stranger his work gets. With the release of Masaaki Yuasa: Five Films, a gorgeous tour through Yuasa’s cinematic oeuvre, there’s never been a better time to revisit his cinematic output, from his astonishing psychedelic debut, Mind Game, through 2022’s genre-defying historical rock opera Inu-Oh. Also included in the set: 2017’s The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl and Lu Over the Wall, and 2019’s wild fantasy romance Ride Your Wave.
In support of the new collection, the Science Saru co-founder sat down for a Zoom interview with Polygon, reflecting on his career, his unique approach to animating characters with impossibly big feelings, and the ways he pushes himself to make deeper, more emotionally profound characters every time.
Polygon: How has it been to look back on these five films for this release? Did anything surprise you about them?
Masaaki Yuasa: You know, rewatching the five films, I really think I still have a lot of work to do. Looking at my skill set, I still have a lot to learn. Mind Game is a really old project that I worked on! And then looking at my newest one — yeah, I think I still have a long way to go.
Your animation style is spectacular for depicting big feelings — do you have a favorite feeling to portray?
I think my favorite feeling that I like to represent in my animation is the feeling of release. Or like, being free, you know? Like, there’s a problem in life and then trying to clear that problem — that’s really what I enjoy expressing.
Even in your sadder stories, there’s usually some kind of optimism. Is hope or connection important to you as an artist or storyteller?
Yeah, when I realized I wanted to be a storyteller, I really thought, Yeah, tragedy is the best of storytelling. But even if a story is a tragedy, I do think trying to get out of it — or if you can’t get out of that tragedy — understanding the tragedy is really important.
What’s the most difficult kind of scene or relationship to animate?
When you think about live-action films, an actor can go back into the past of the character and express it in a way that a human being can. But in animation, you really have to draw that out. And it’s really hard to express those deep emotions that a human actor can.
But I do try to express that depth of the character when I’m animating. Maybe it would be easier to draw or create a simple character and just let the storytelling take care of the emotional burden, but I do like to come up with complex characters and try to depict that in the animation. That is difficult, but that is what I strive for.
I love how you and the people you work with emphasize awkwardness and imperfections in the human body. Do you find all that beautiful? Do you find that we are sometimes limited in how we show bodies in motion?
Yeah, I do think imperfect or awkward people are more attractive, and I do like watching them more than someone who looks perfect.
You love using music with your animation — is there a genre of music you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
I like any kind of music, but there’s one genre that I haven’t worked with before. Ambient noise music — I think that would be really interesting, but I also do understand that it would be difficult to incorporate.