Given the free, forward-thinking nature of Masaaki Yuasa’s animated work, it’s funny that his latest film, Inu-Oh, begins with a look back. The Studio Science Saru, co-founder and director of Stay away from Eizouken! and Ride your wave crosses several centuries in the first minute Inu-Oh, beginning in the present day and rewinding in one place hundreds of years, with buildings dissolving before the eyes of the beholder. This fast-paced deconstruction and reconstruction of the story is just a taste of what’s to come: the film packs a lot into a compact running time. Exploring a hidden illusory history of art and authoritarianism, Inu-Oh is an exciting, even melancholy, exploration where these two elements intersect and collide. It’s a psychedelic, bombastic rock opera, but amidst all the energy, Yuasa ponders what stories have been lost as society’s more controlling elements attempt to control how art is made and disseminated.
Yuasa has previously done musical sequences: a psychosexual hallucination in mind gamean extended theatrical farce in The night is short, walk on girla look back at a lost loved one in Ride your wave. But while traces of these past projects can be felt everywhere Inu-Ohit still feels fresh and imaginative as it condenses the director’s quirks into an electrifying revisionist story that’s simultaneously joyful and tragic.
Based on a novel by Hideo Furukawa (his modern translation of the Japanese epic Heike Monogatari was the basis for Naoko Yamada’s excellent anime adaptation, also starring Science Saru), the film is set in 14th-century Japan in the Muromachi period after the devastating Genpei War of 1180-1185. While the Ashikaga clan works ruthlessly to secure its power, it quietly buries the Heike clan by controlling its history and censoring stories about it.
During a mission dive on the high seas for Heike Schatz, young Tomona, one of the film’s two leads, finds an artifact that reacts violently to her presence. Tomona subsequently loses his father and his eyesight, and shortly thereafter also loses his mother from grief. Tomona embarks on a lonely journey as a Biwa priest and preserves the stories of Heike through songs. He soon encounters the outcast Inu-Oh (translated “Dog King” – he was first seen eating with dogs), a child born with a curse of unknown origin and shunned for his looks. Inu-Oh hides his face behind a pumpkin mask. Inspired by vague legends surrounding a real Noh artist of that name, the film expands on sparse information and envisions Inu-Oh as a social outcast whose true achievements have been erased from the historical record.
The first encounter between the two men immediately feels meaningful because of the way Yuasa uses subjective perspective. Before Tomona and Inu-Oh meet, their points of view are embedded in their contrasting cameras. Inu-Oh’s eye features a kind of keyhole camera, speeding through the streets and over rooftops to the horror of viewers. It’s a parodic display of monstrosity as he reconciles his ostracism by engaging in alienating behavior. Tomona is calmer. His adjustment to the loss of his eyesight is depicted in broad, oily brushstrokes. The sounds and sensations of rain and chanting Biwa priests appear as vague, silhouetted impressions through Tomona’s senses, while Yuasa finds little musicality in everyday activities and pays close attention to the little things in people’s lives.
It’s an early testament to the power of visual storytelling, even amid the euphoria of film music. And then we see the excitement of both of them transferring their perspective to other people and using their art to represent how they see the world. They learn from each other – Tomona takes on some of Inu-Oh’s wild spirit, while Inu-Oh picks up on Tomona’s sensibilities. Traveling Biwa priests of the time typically performed stories about the Heike, but together the two reinvent and reinvigorate this trend. When they encounter the spirits of the deceased Heike, they find new stories to tell.
Finding their purpose in singing and performing the clan members’ stories with electric new style, the film quickly pivots to its delightful premise: What if Beatlemania happened 600 years ago? Yuasa and screenwriter Akiko Nogi envision two outsized reactions to Inu-Oh and Tomona’s popularity: the public goes berserk, and the authorities grow suspicious for fear of subversiveness, especially when the music begins to spread the story, which the government is aware of has suppressed. But while handling the weight of history, Inu-Oh also revels in the liberation of sheer performance.
As a director, Yuasa is best known for the exciting rubber band flexibility of his characters and for how he seeks the same kind of buoyant freedom that Inu-Oh and Tomona explore. in the Inu-OhYuasa and Nogi similarly free traditional Japanese entertainment from the expectations of tradition. Inu-Oh blends Noh theater with a more contemporary pop culture experience. Inu-Oh sings in piercing high notes (provided by Avu-chan from the band Queen Bee) and Tomona complements him with equally wild, sleazy vocals (from actor Mirai Moriyama). The tones of electric guitars replace traditional instruments, and the two men salt their stage performances with Freddie Mercury-esque showmanship: one song moves to the beat of “We Will Rock You” while another called “Dragon Commander” emulates rapid fire Lyrics and borrowed operatic harmonies from “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Instead of classic dance dramas, the film’s musical sequences look like contemporary gigs, complete with light shows, audience participation, and even black-clad security guards. Aside from the vocal tracks, the rest of the score maintains that playfulness, while instrumentalist and turntablist Yoshihide Otomo infuses electronic tones into a feudal setting.
As the film turns historical drama into musical theater, Inu-Oh and Tomona transform into noh theater rock stars. Tomona shreds his biwa behind his back or with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix or twirls like Elvis while wearing biwa priestly robes modified to resemble the flared legs and deep V-neckline of the king’s iconic rhinestone jumpsuit . He later wows crowds and confounds governors with his androgynous fashion sense. Equally anachronistic is the depiction of mass reactions, as peasants breakdancing and even dancing by one soul train Line. While Inu-Oh’s appearance was once despised and feared, his status as an artist has made those same qualities revered and mythologized. And as their music soothes the restless Heike spirits they converse with, Inu-Oh’s body changes as well.
While Yuasa delights in Inu-Oh’s atypical physicality, impossible dance moves, and angelic voice, he’s also so involved in the technical logistics and effects work of the concerts that the mechanics feel utterly real. He makes the audience look for the magic like they are watching a real stage performance. It’s a really amazing illusion effect that gives the film that extra bit of immersion. It’s only one possibility Inu-Oh shows a strong interest in different textures and perspectives from history, reflected in the inclusion of classic paintings and even in the patchwork look of the film’s title, which mimics the cobbled-together fabrics of Inu-Oh’s shabby makeshift clothes.
Yuasa assembles the film through mixed media, exploring spaces with 3D CG animation or tactile painterly imagery. The stage performances aren’t the film’s only focus – there are some slasher-type horror interludes when a mysterious figure stalks and kills roving Biwa priests, and even an out-of-body experience that will stir up some memories 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It also rhymes with Yuasas in some places Devilman crybabyin Inu-Oh and Tomona’s intimate relationship and fluid gender performance, which is suitably pushed back Devilman crybabyresearch into xenophobia. But rather than the eccentric, otherworldly apparitions of devil man‘s Akira and Ryo as designed by Taiyo Matsumoto (as synergistic as ever with Yuasa’s sensibilities since their earlier collaborations). Ping Pong: The animation) Inu-OhThe characters of feel both highly stylized and rawly human. The stylization focuses on beauty as the camera admires Tomona – now Tomoari – and the lithe, muscular form and provocative twists that make him a sex symbol for screaming crowds.
The two musicians are also witnesses to a hidden history, and there is something elegiac about it Inu-Oh as it tells the stories of the dead. Though Yuasa pits art against a repressive government, the film is not naïve when it comes to the limits of such openness. The conservative pushback provoked by their subversiveness feels like a foregone conclusion. Both a tragic epilogue to the end of Heike’s reign and perhaps a musing by Yuasa on the impact his work would leave behind, it is likely a lasting thought for any artist. His film bolsters its narrative with visions of murdered priests and storytellers, branches of history being harshly cut off by people trying to remake the end product. But there is a glimmer of optimism Inu-Oh Regardless, indeed by artists living for themselves, in the immortality of creating works that endure, stories that outgrow their creators and anyone’s oppressive control.
Inu-Oh opens in American cinemas on August 12th.
https://www.polygon.com/23301629/inu-oh-review-anime-masaaki-yuasa Inu-Oh Review: Anime’s wildest creator is back with a weird, upbeat rock opera