INU-OH (Cert 15)
Limited Theatrical Release (Distributor: Anime Ltd.) Running time: 97 minutes approx.
Release Date: September 28th
You can’t stop Rock and Roll!
Thus spoke Twisted Sister in 1983 but it seems music has been oppressed for far longer according to this historical drama, with a story dating back over 600 years. Set in feudal Japan, a Biwa player and Noh dancer upset the establishment as the Sex Pistols would in 1976.
900 years ago, the Genji clan defeats the Heike clan in the Battle of Dan-no-ura to unify the emperor’s throne, but is missing one of the three treasures, the Grasscutter Sword. Later, in the 14th century, young diver Tomona and his father are hired to retrieve the sword from the Heike shipwreck, but when it is unsheathed, Tomona is blinded and his father killed by its energy.
Accompanied by his father’s ghost, Tomona becomes a wanderer, meeting a troupe of blind Biwa players. He joins them, takes up the instrument, and changes his name to Tomichi. Meanwhile, a Noh dance troupe leader dons a cursed mask, causing his third son to be born with a rare deformity. The masked Inu-Oh is outcast except for the spirits of dead Heike soldiers surrounding him, telling him stories. When Inu-Oh meets Tomichi, the pair team up to create a new form of entertainment.
With its origins in the novel Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh by Hideo Furukawa, the latest film from abstract auteur Masaaki Yuasa sees him deviate from his usual form to create something rather special. Noted for his surreal ideas and loose art style, Yuasa retains these qualities but channelled into an aesthetic suited to the historical setting, as if the woodblock prints of the day had come alive.
Hopefully this change in artistic presentation won’t put Yuasa fans off as Inu-Oh is still exquisite to look at, brimming with verve and veracity in its presentation of feudal Japan – until the rock and roll twist arrives that is. The real Inu-Oh was a cultural icon as a Noh dancer although little is known about him aside from legends, allowing Furukawa to take some creative liberties with his story, and in turn gave Yuasa the opportunity to present this period psychedelic rock opera!
Inu-Oh may be the titular protagonist but the story belongs as much as to Tomoichi as it does Inu-oh. Once a scrappy but capable diver, losing his eyesight changed Tomoichi’s personality to an angry young man. This anger is then rerouted into learning to play the Biwa (a sort of Shamisen) and in the songs he sings. However, Tomoichi changing his name makes it harder for his father’s ghost to find him, the one constant in his life until he meets Inu-Oh.
Born with short stumpy legs, a singular elongated arm and a hideous, disfigured face (which we never see), Inu-Oh is treated like a dog, forced to eat from a bowl and sleep outside, whilst his two normal brothers are put their paces as Noh dancers by their strict father. One day, Inu-oh dances along with the music and masters the moves, which results in his legs grow to normal length, allowing him to run away and meet Tomoichi.
Learning of the ghosts sharing their stories of woe with Inu-Oh, Tomoichi feels these would make more for stronger lyrics for his songs, not to mention the savage political context. With Tomoichi’s song and Inu-Oh’s dancing, the duo perform under a bridge to begin with, attracting small crowds with their lively sound and dancing, accentuated by Inu-Oh’s unique appearance, and Tomoichi’s rock star looks with his long, untied hair.
Now with a drummer and bass player (appearing from nowhere), the music changes from traditional dirges to thumping rock anthems, complete with Tomichi – now called Tomoari – throwing shapes and channelling his inner Hendrix by playing the Biwa behind his back! This new heavier sound is anachronistic yet feels natural too, something only animation can get away, more so here than in the rock vs. idol series Samurai Rock: Bakumatsu Jam!
Unfortunately, the Emperor learns of the anti-government rhetoric in some of Tomoari’s lyrics, demanding only state approved songs are sung. Inu-Oh concedes to spare being beheaded but Tomoari stands his ground. Meanwhile, Inu-Oh learns the truth behind his original cursed form when his father’s Noh troupe lose in popularity to this new rock duo and he sets out to sabotage his son’s career to save his own.
Positing modern day problems in a historical setting for allegorical purposes often brings with it a number of credibility problems, something which this film manages to avoid even with the spurious premise. State censorship has long been an issue and was far worse in days of old because of the paucity of honest information outlets; supplanting the writes of the day with rock music is masterstroke in making the story palatable for modern audiences, whilst affording subtle references to today’s world in the subtext.
Oppression and political strangleholds aside, the real message of the story is in the coming together of two people with impairments or disabilities who overcome them after being written off. We are able to help the disabled and afflicted achieve much more in their lives these days although dismissive attitudes still persist; in an era where most invalids would have been slaughtered, this tale show the progress we have made.
Visually, Yuasa and Science SARU deliver their most spectacular work to date even without the trademark Yuasa’s art style. The colour palette is largely muted to reflect the period but not entirely abandoned as demonstrated by the musical numbers, recalling the experimental works of the early ‘70s, such as Belladonna Of Sadness. Yuasa lets his imagination go within this scene of kaleidoscopic abandon yet retains the integrity of the traditional dancing movements through this wonderfully evocative synergy.
Rock & Roll has always been about rebellion so it is fitting it is the soundtrack for a story like Inu-Oh, and from a free spirited and inventive director like Yuasa in his greatest, stylish, and most sublime work yet.
Rating – **** ½
Man In Black
INU-OH will be shown in selected cinemas from 28 September 2022 in Japanese with English subtitles.
For more information and to book tickets, please visit https://inu-oh.co.uk/