Masaaki Yuasa takes viewers on a spiritual and musical odyssey in the days of feudal Japan with his latest surreal anime.
From the psychedelic headtrip that is Mind Game and the surreal night out had by Otome in The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl to the anime series adaptation of Devilman Crybaby, Masaaki Yuasa has established himself as a visionary voice in Japanese animation. His latest film, Inu-Oh, aims to turn heads, rack brains and open audiences’ minds once more, and while it’s not without its faults, the film is still a solid new entry in his filmography and one that should appeal to fans of anime through its inventive blending of multiple genres, gorgeous animation, raucous soundtrack, and a narrative rooted in the ideals of Japanese spirituality.
Inu-Oh takes place in the days of feudal Japan, where two Samurai warriors ask a young boy named Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) and his father (Kenjiro Tsuda) to help them find one of three ancient treasures to assist the shogunate in uniting two courts currently at war over who is the rightful ruler of the country. They discover an ancient sword only to learn upon its unsheathing that it carries a horrible curse, which results in Tomona permanently blinded and his father killed. Years later, Tomona has joined a theater troupe of priests that play a Japanese variant of the guitar called the biwa, led by the blind Taniichi (Yukihiro Gotō).
Tomona soon finds himself confronted by Inu-Oh (Avu-chan), a strange man with an arm absurdly longer than the other, covered head-to-toe in clothing, and masked by a gourd in order to hide his hideously disfigured body. However, a part of Inu-Oh’s body remarkably and mysteriously morphs into one of normalcy with every new dance he does, so he and Tomona work together to form a musical act in order to not only give each other new life as traveling musicians, but also to see how far Inu-Oh’s transformations go, all while the shogunate grows fearful of Tomona’s songs inspiring a new movement to unseat him as Japan’s ruler.
Yuasa’s unique animation style does a beautiful job of setting audiences within Tomona’s point of view through a thoughtful conveying of his vision impairment, such as when he sees an orange blur within Taniichi’s off-white outline in the distance when he hears the pleasant and entrancing sounds of the biwa for the first time. The 3D camera movements not only aid in assuming Tomona’s perspective when he runs to see his company’s leader in a moment where he needs guidance, but they also capture the spectacle of the concerts put on in the film, especially when members of Japanese royalty wait in anticipation for Tomona to perform one of his songs about Inu-Oh’s life story, the colors of their kimonos popping with beautiful vibrancy.
Inu-Oh also has some considerable weight to its plot through the implementation of Japanese spiritual beliefs within the script. One such example is when Taniichi grants Tomona permission to add the suffix ‘-ichi’ to his name in order to be a full-fledged member of the troupe, but his father’s ghost visits Tomona in his mind to protest him out of it because if he changes his name, his father’s spirit will not only never be able to find him, but also never be put to eternal rest. Another instance comes when some of Tomona’s fellow Biwa priests perform a Buddhist chant for the shogunate, who acknowledges his late grandfather by referring to his tombstone only a few steps away from their concert, as if he is an observer of the show from beyond the grave.
Meanwhile, the musical sequences themselves are also full of wonder and spectacle as the songs weave upbeat tales of Inu-Oh’s lifelong quest for acceptance with an infectious sound influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, amplified by Tomona’s techniques of modern stage presence. Pelvic thrusts, cueing on-lookers to clap with the beat of a given song, and playing the biwa behind his head all contribute to a powerful message about the transcendent power of performance.
The musical sequences of the movie are gorgeous to look at, but they are also where Inu-Oh starts to falter, because they go on for so long that viewers are left feeling like they’re watching a concert rather than a narrative film, which is both a strength to its dreamlike tone but also a detriment to its pacing. To that point, the genre shifts from Tomona’s hero’s journey to an extravagant animated rock opera feel more jarring here than they did in the aforementioned Walk On Girl, particularly during callbacks to a past war in Tomona’s homeland. What’s also worth noting is that what conflict there is doesn’t move with urgency too often within its 90-minute runtime, so the movie ends by the time any sort of suspense kicks in.
And yet, the film’s conclusion is still powerful regardless, because the note Yuasa’s latest ends on will make casual audiences want to see it again from a metaphysical perspective. Inu-Oh as a film arguably isn’t necessarily a straightforward narrative, but more so a dreamlike, genre-blending meditation on the lasting legacies of musicians, and music’s power as an art form to tell legendary stories, give listeners a sense of purpose, inspire political movements, help spirits be remembered, keep family legacies alive, and help outcasts obtain the acceptance they desire. There’s something for everyone to relate to in that regard, and that’s why open-minded audiences and die-hard fans of anime should seek out Inu-Oh.