Throughout Masaaki Yuasa’s career, from his shortest pieces to his grandest experiments, there has been an undeniable musicality in his animation. Jazzy experimentation with color, texture, and sound is in everything from his Adventure Time episode “Food Chain” to TV series like The Tatami Galaxy or Devilman Crybaby to films like Mind Game or Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. This talent is what makes Inu-Oh, his latest feature, so explosive and surprising.
The film is a new spin on the Heike Monogatari, a 1330 epic about the Genpei War of the 1180s, in which two clans fought for control of Japan. Centuries after the war, the descendants of the defeated Heike people tell their stories through then-new art forms like noh theater, literally haunted by the past via the lingering ghosts of their ancestors. The story follows two artists initially shunned for their physical differences: Inu-Oh, a cursed dancer who has to hide beneath a mask and costume, and blind biwa player Tomona. They find they make for quite the musical pair, and choose to shirk tradition by telling new stories rather than respect the Heike canon. As they gain popularity, they find that not only can their art pacify the spirits of the dead, but also that Inu-Oh’s very physical forms change as they perform.
Every inch of Inu-Oh exists in a space between tradition and modernity. It’s in Yuasa’s freeform art style mixing millennia of different Japanese art styles. It’s in composer Otomo Yoshihide blending biwa instrumentation with the sensibilities of Elvis, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Freddie Mercury. The film imagines noh performances as rock concerts full of color, light, and gleefully anachronistic gyrations. But Akiko Nogi’s script, adapted from Hideo Furukawa’s novel, isn’t all about showiness. It also leans heavily on the relationship between Inu-Oh and Tomona, and the film’s identity is as fluid and malleable as theirs.
The result is a queering of history and music not dissimilar to the approach Todd Haynes took with films like Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. They share a preoccupation with exploring the relationships beneath all the makeup and costuming (both literal and metaphorical) of art and performance. But where Haynes prioritized nuanced dissections of specific star personas (Bowie in Velvet Goldmine, Bob Dylan in I’m Not There), Yuasa and his collaborators study how revolutionary individuals pave the way for larger cultural changes, as well as how the establishment tries to silence those who dare express themselves in ways that it doesn’t like.
That emphasis on expression is key, as Inu-Oh draws an obvious but essential line between political and musical revolution. It’s even present in the casting of trans nonbinary musician Avu-chan as the ever-shapeshifting title character. The artist’s vocals pierce through every number, a rallying cry for the unheard who can’t be ignored. It is this, along with Yuasa’s irresistible visual prowess, that makes a text with heavily traditional roots into something utterly timely.
Inu-Oh opens in theaters August 12.