Over the past decade, Masaaki Yuasa has slowly but surely ingrained himself as one of the best directors currently working in the anime industry. Since establishing Science Saru in 2014, the studio has worked on a myriad of high-profile projects, some that I’ve reviewed, some I’ve covered in Weeb Analysis, and some which have received universal acclaim even outside of the anime industry. While there is a lot that can be said about the poor working conditions at the studio and how it needs to change, Science Saru is quickly becoming one of the premier studios in Japan.
As a director though, Yuasa is a man who is interested in human connections. There are often fantastical elements incorporated into his films, but he seems to be interested in the bonds that people can share and develop with each other. Whether they be friends, lovers, co-workers, teammates, religious deities, or a combination of the above, Yuasa wants to see what drives people to connect with one another. It allows his films and shows, despite being a bit hard to comprehend at times, to deliver believable pathos.
Inu-Oh is Yuasa’s latest film and serves as further proof of his quality as a director. It brings out those themes again, but with a twist. This isn’t just a simple historical piece about the Muromachi period in Japan. It’s a rock opera and a good one at that. It’s not his most accessible movie, as it requires a lot of knowledge of Japanese history and folklore, but it’s probably his most kickass movie.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Release Date: August 11, 2022 (Limited Theatrical)
First and foremost, if you want to fully enjoy Inu-Oh, you need to be aware of a few elements of Japanese culture. Unlike in his prior films and TV shows, where you could easily hop into them without any context or knowledge about anything Japanese, that’s not true here. Being aware of some of the tenets of Noh theater, biwa music, the Muromachi period of Japan, the Heike and the Genpei War in general, and Yurei is really helpful to comprehend the plot. You can still follow it somewhat without familiarity with these concepts, but you’ll be missing a lot of the finer points and it’ll take you a bit to connect with what’s happening.
Inu-Oh centers on two performers, one of them a blind Biwa player named Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), and the other a deformed/cursed dancer who named himself Inu-Oh (Avu-chan). The two share a love of music and quickly decide to work together to share their art. Tomona uses his biwa skills to become a rock star in the countryside with Inu-Oh developing a huge following based on his bizarre dance moves and lavish special effects. This draws the ire of the shogun and Inu-Oh’s father, who view both of them as disturbing the peace and supplanting the tradition of the region. They try to orchestrate events to eliminate the pair in the name of preserving the status quo, but nothing can stop Inu-Oh and Tomona cause they have the power of ROCK on their side.
While the story itself is based on the real-life and mysterious performer Inu-Oh, you can tell very easily a lot of aspects were embellished. It helps that the actual Inu-Oh is more of a legend with hardly anything known about him, so being able to depict him as a rock star was a pretty inspired move. It casts this legendary performer alongside huge stadium shows that rockstars like Bowie and Motley Crue were able to perform. You can feel the energy as Inu-Oh and Tomona perform to audiences and hear the crowds call back, women fawning over them as security protects the stage. The film mimics a lot of musicals with standard tropes, but they’re delivered in unique and inspired ways.
Given the time period, Yuasa took the liberty of trying to display the wild and crazy energy of concerts in a classical setting. Tomona dresses provocatively and has fire breathers around as he sings. Inu-Oh uses grand special effects with lanterns and his own mutilated body to generate excitement. It’s a clever way to convey how people felt about musicians and performers back in the day, supplanting the historically accurate portrayal with our modern sensibilities. It stumbles a bit with how non-stop it is, with two almost identical performances being shown back to back, but repeating a good thing is hardly a glaring flaw.
Speaking of the music, it’s easy to appreciate how it’s presented on a surface level as well as a technical level. The music always matches up with what’s happening on screen because the animation was created first, then the music was written. This allowed Yuasa to design the scenes and the spectacle however he wanted, with the music focused on emphasizing those visual moments. It’s not exactly common practice, but it lends itself to some very compelling musical numbers.
And Inu-Oh is undeniably a rock opera. While the first third of the movie is told primarily through dialogue, once Tomona and Inu-Oh meet, the rest of the movie shifts to telling its story through song. Tomona sings about the struggles of Inu-Oh’s life, while Inu-Oh dances and performs to appease the spirits of the Heike, slowly healing his body from the curse placed on him in the process. The two musicians have a symbiotic relationship, helping each other out, especially in the film’s epilogue, solidifying just how much these two friends really mean to each other no matter the circumstance.
As far as the animation goes, you’ll either love or hate Yuasa’s style. Most of the colors are muted for the majority of the film, only really coming alive in Inu-Oh’s performances or any dance number really. I get the symbolic meaning behind it, but it still doesn’t change the fact that aesthetically, the film looks plain. If you were hooked into Science Saru based on any of his earlier works, with the exception of Ping Pong: The Animation, there may be a bit of whiplash behind it.
That’s all personal preference and doesn’t diminish the overall quality of the film. In 90 minutes, Yuasa and Science Saru are able to create a historical rock opera that shows a grand sense of scale and spectacle while also conveying the truth that music can bring. The songs that Inu-Oh and Tomona sing are seen as inconveniences to the ruling class not because they’re false, but because they contradict the status quo. It would be easier to eliminate the two of them in a sly fashion than to admit that the shogun isn’t all-knowing and the customs of the time are in need of change. Music can have that power to bring change and you do get a sense that the music and performances of Inu-Oh and Tomona are exactly that. It’s easily conveyed and effectively exemplifies just how revolutionary their music is.
It’s too soon to tell how Inu-Oh will stand alongside the rest of Science Saru’s library, but it should be one of their most well-regarded pieces. I personally don’t think it’s their best, Devilman Crybaby does exist after all, but like a good concert, Inu-Oh is heart-pounding and exciting. The needed knowledge of Japanese culture required to fully appreciate the film and its visual style may make this a difficult film to recommend, but if you’re willing to meet with it on its terms, you’ll have an excellent time.