Science Saru studio co-founder Masaaki Yuasa layers Elvis and Beatlemania onto traditional Japanese theater
Considering the freeform, forward-thinking nature of Masaaki Yuasa’s animated work, it’s funny that his latest film, Inu-Oh, starts by looking backward. The Science Saru studio co-founder and director of Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! and Ride Your Wave crosses several centuries in the first minute of Inu-Oh, starting in the modern day and rewinding hundreds of years in one spot, with buildings unmaking themselves in front of viewers’ eyes. That fast-paced deconstruction and reconstruction of history is just a taste of what’s to come: The movie packs a lot into a compact run time. Exploring a hidden faux-history of art and authoritarianism, Inu-Oh is an exciting, even melancholy exploration of where these two elements overlap and clash. It’s a psychedelic, bombastic rock opera, but amid all the energy, Yuasa ponders what stories have been lost as society’s more controlling elements attempt to control how art is made and distributed.
Yuasa has done musical sequences before: a psychosexual hallucination in Mind Game, an extended theatrical farce in The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, a look back at a lost loved one in Ride Your Wave. But while traces of these past projects are felt throughout Inu-Oh, it still feels fresh and inventive as it focuses the director’s quirks into an electrifying revisionist history that’s joyous and tragic at the same time.
Based on a novel by Hideo Furukawa (whose modern translation of the Japanese epic Heike Monogatari was the basis for Naoko Yamada’s superb anime adaptation, also with Science Saru), the film is set in 14th-century Japan in the Muromachi period, following the devastating Genpei War of 1180–1185. As the Ashikaga clan ruthlessly works to secure its power, it quietly buries the Heike clan by controlling its history and censoring stories about it.
During a commissioned dive out at sea for Heike treasure, young Tomona, one of the film’s two leads, finds an artifact that reacts violently to their presence. Tomona loses his father and his eyesight in what follows, and shortly afterward, he loses his mother to grief as well. Tomona sets out on a solitary journey as a biwa priest, preserving the stories of the Heike through song. He soon encounters the outcast Inu-Oh (translating to “Dog King” — he’s first seen eating with hounds), a child born with a curse of unknown origin, who is shunned for his physical appearance. Inu-Oh keeps his face hidden behind a gourd mask. Inspired by vague legends around a real Noh performer of that name, the film expands on scarce information and imagines Inu-Oh as a social outcast whose true accomplishments were stricken from the historical record.
The first encounter between the two men feels immediately 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 is characterized by a sort of keyhole camera racing through the streets and across rooftops, to onlookers’ horror. It’s a parodic performance of monstrosity, as he reconciles himself to his ostracization by leaning into alienating behavior. Tomona is more serene. His adjustment to the loss of his eyesight is depicted in wide, oily paint brushstrokes. The sounds and sensation of rain and singing biwa priests appear as vague, silhouetted impressions through Tomona’s senses, as Yuasa finds a minor musicality in everyday activities, paying careful attention to the minutiae of people’s lives.
It’s an early testament to the strength of visual storytelling at play, even amid the euphoria of the film’s music. And then we see the elation of the two transmitting their perspective to other people, using their art to depict how they see the world. They learn from each other — Tomona adopts some of Inu-Oh’s wild spirit, while Inu-Oh picks up Tomona’s sensitivity. Traveling biwa priests of the time typically performed stories of the Heike, but together, the two reinvent and reinvigorate this trend. Once they encounter spirits of the deceased Heike, they find new stories to tell.
They find their purpose in singing and performing the clan members’ stories with electric new style, and the film quickly swerves into its delightful premise: What if Beatlemania happened 600 years ago? Yuasa and screenwriter Akiko Nogi imagine two outsized responses to Inu-Oh and Tomona’s popularity: The public goes wild, and the authorities become suspicious, fearing subversiveness, especially when the music starts spreading the history that the government has consciously suppressed. But for all of its dealing with the weight of history, Inu-Oh also revels in the liberation of sheer performance.
As a director, Yuasa is best known for his characters’ thrilling rubber-band flexibility, and the ways he seeks out the same kind of elated freedom Inu-Oh and Tomona are exploring. In Inu-Oh, Yuasa and Nogi similarly free traditional Japanese entertainment from the expectations of tradition. Inu-Oh conflates Noh theater with a more contemporary experience of pop culture. Inu-Oh sings in piercing high notes (provided by Avu-chan of the band Queen Bee) and Tomona complements him with equally fierce, grungy vocals (from actor Mirai Moriyama). The sounds 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, named “Dragon Commander,” emulates the quickfire lyrics and borrowed operatic harmonies of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Instead of classical dance-dramas, the movie’s musical sequences look like contemporary gigs, complete with light shows, crowd participation, and even black-clad security guards. Beyond the vocal tracks, the rest of the score maintains this playfulness, as instrumentalist and turntablist Yoshihide Otomo injects electronic tones into feudal surroundings.
As the film remakes historical drama into musical theater, Inu-Oh and Tomona remake themselves into Noh theater rock stars. Tomona shreds his biwa behind his back or with his teeth like Jimi Hendrix, or gyrates like Elvis while wearing biwa priest vestments modified to resemble the flared legs and deep V-neck of the King’s iconic rhinestone jumpsuit. Later, he wows crowds and confounds governors through his androgynous fashion sense. The depiction of crowd responses is just as anachronistic, as peasants breakdance and even dance through a Soul Train line. Meanwhile, where Inu-Oh’s appearance was once despised and feared, his status as an artist makes those same qualities revered and mythologized. And as their music pacifies the restless Heike spirits they commune with, Inu-Oh’s body changes too.
While Yuasa delights in Inu-Oh’s atypical physicality, impossible dance moves, and angelic voice, he also becomes so involved in the technical logistics and the effects work of the concerts that the mechanics feel utterly real. He tricks the audience into searching for the magic, as if they were watching an actual stage act. It’s a genuinely astonishing illusory effect that gives the film that extra bit of immersion. It’s just one way in which Inu-Oh shows a keen interest in different textures and ways of seeing from across history, represented in its incorporation of classic paintings, and even the patchwork appearance of the film’s on-screen title, which replicates the cobbled-together fabrics of Inu-Oh’s shabby makeshift garments.
Yuasa assembles the film through mixed media, exploring spaces with 3D CG animation or more tactile, painterly imagery. The stage acts aren’t the movie’s only focus — there are some slasher-type horror interludes as a mysterious figure stalks and kills roaming biwa priests, and even an out-of-body experience that will have some recalling 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It also rhymes at points with Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby, in Inu-Oh and Tomona’s intimate relationship and fluid gender performance, which gets pushback to match Devilman Crybaby’s exploration of xenophobia. But rather than the eccentric, otherworldly appearances of Devilman’s Akira and Ryo, as designed by Taiyo Matsumoto (as synergetic as ever with Yuasa’s sensibilities, from their past collaboration on Ping Pong: The Animation) Inu-Oh’s characters feel both heavily stylized and ruggedly human. The stylization focuses on beauty, as the camera admires Tomona — now Tomoari — and the lithe, muscular form and provocative gyrations that make him a sex symbol for braying crowds.
The two musicians are also witnesses to a hidden history, and there’s something of an elegiac feeling to Inu-Oh as it tells the stories of the dead. Though Yuasa pits art against an oppressive government, the film isn’t naive about the upper limits of such outspokenness. The conservative pushback provoked by their subversiveness feels like a foregone conclusion. It’s both a tragic postscript to the end of Heike rule, and perhaps a rumination by Yuasa on the impact his work would leave behind, likely a lingering thought for any artist. His film bookends its narrative with visions of slain priests and storytellers, history’s branches harshly cut off by people who want to reshape the final product. But there’s a twinkle of optimism to Inu-Oh regardless, in the act of artists living for themselves, in the immortality of creating work that lasts, stories that grow beyond their creators and beyond anyone’s oppressive control.
Inu-Oh opens in American theaters on Aug. 12.