On paper, a basic plot summary of Inu-Oh, the new anime film by Masaaki Yuasa, would make it sound like a completely different film than it actually is. Granted, the film does appear to be that at first. However, anyone who knows anything about Masaaki Yuasa’s work knows to expect the unexpected whenever possible, and this film is no different. Inspired by a legendary 14th-century Japanese performer about who little is known, and based on a novel that reimagined the legend as a tale of overcoming social prejudice, Inu-Oh is a gorgeously animated historical saga celebrating individuality and the power of storytelling. It’s a tale of political intrigue, disturbed spirits, and speaking truth to power through art. Also, it’s partially a rock opera.
Yes, you read that correctly.
In 14th-century Japan, Tomona is blind after a supernatural incident (linked to a civil war centuries earlier) that also killed his father. Now searching for answers and followed by his father’s spirit, he joins a group of blind biwa players telling stories. It isn’t long before he finds Inu-oh (“King of the Dogs”), a hideously deformed dancer wearing a gourd mask. Tomona and Inu-oh decide to join forces to create a revolutionary performing troupe that quickly brings them fame.
The film takes its time at first, developing the story, and there’s a lot of story here. Between the historical background and multiple plot threads being established, it at first seems on its way to being an animated historical epic. It’s also during this part that some of my favorite animated sequences occur, namely Tomona’s point of view. The feeling of being blind is portrayed through a painted style of animation, with only what can be deduced through the sound slowly being shown onscreen.
Around the halfway point, however, everything changes, and it doesn’t go back. The film goes full-on rock opera in what may be one of, if not the only animated films to contain a headbanging, toe-tapping musical number about the brutality of war. The animation goes into overdrive as well, ranging from spellbinding theatrics to psychedelic fantasy. It’s the kind of premise that could only work in animation. If this were live-action, the 14th century rock concert setup wouldn’t have the same impact. However, the film devotes a sizeable straight chunk of the running time to singing, and despite the plot relevancy, it may wear thin for some after a while as it did for me.
Is a film like this bizarre? Yes. Yes it is. However, there is a point. Without giving too much of the plot away, the rock music motif is fitting, as this is very much a film about the perils facing those who stand out. Despite the centuries-old setting involving Japanese history, the film’s messages are universally resonant, and the film’s final moments will likely leave you with a lot to think about. The film begins with a statement that it’s a story that has been taken, and this idea manifests itself in the story in multiple ways, both fantastical and devastatingly real.
Inu-Oh is both an effective history lesson and a musical, often-fantastical rockin’ tribute to art. It’s both funny and tragic, serious and over-the-top, and uses the medium of animation to great effect. You’re unlikely to see much else like it right now.