We are long past the point where animations—and most especially the labour-intensive and detailed works of anime—are not considered with the same value as other artistic mediums. Iconic and iconoclast director Masaaki Yuasa has been one of the most artistically inspiring creators in the medium for decades now. His latest work with his animation studio, which may well be the last he makes with it, is Inu-Oh—a rollicking and uninhibited musical of the titular noh performer and the legends that surround him, his memory from the 14th century now lost in mystery.
For the uninitiated, Yuasa’s particular style is a wonderfully elusive one to pin down, largely because there is such freedom of expression and variance of presentation from project to project. A creator who leans into the power of his medium, Yuasa presents chaotically loose forms with cartoonishly high energies and balances this against hyper-detailed flourishes with heavy, unflinching subject matter. From the multimedia extravaganza of his 2004 experimental feature Mind Game to the roughly sober and understated expressiveness of the 2014 series Ping Pong, Yuasa blends the grounding of reality with heightened abstraction to more intensely dig into the cerebral heart of his works.
Inu-Oh certainly follows in this tradition of Yuasa’s oeuvre. The story of the film centres around the characters of Tomona and Inu-Oh—a blind biwa player (a stringed instrument used in storytelling performances) and a deformed noh performer (a traditional form of Japanese dance theatre) respectively. Based on Hideo Furukawa’s novel Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh, it sees the pair coming together to overcome their burdens and flourish into pioneering artists. Reimagining their exploits as boundary-pushing rebellion akin to the birth of rock, the rise and fall of Inu-Oh is as dynamic, glittering, and tragic as the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust. Yuasa digs into ideas of artistic integrity, privilege, societal norms, familial duty, and the reasons why we create with rich depth and sharp wit that reflect not only the mediums presented but easily it’s own as well.
Described aptly as a rock opera, this feature-length musical anime combines elements of noh and biwa along with modern guitar-centric rock to create a stirringly anachronistic experience. This seamless cultural blend is both fresh and familiar, instilling a deeply connective energy to these aged art forms. Inu-Oh and Tomona are voiced by musician Avu-chan and actor Mirai Moriyama respectively, and the intensity and sincerity of their performances not only make for head-bobbing, electric enjoyment, but a deep care and concern for these vulnerable underdogs. The sonic fingerprint of the movie evolves across its timeline, never settling into a single sound, making for the perfect pairing to the evocative animation and expressing fervent emotions in the way only a sudden outburst of song can.
Inu-Oh also carries this perfect blend of era and styles with it into its visual presentation. Tomona adopts the equivalent guise of a glam rocker over time—his fellow biwa priests commenting that he looks and smells “like a prostitute”—and his troupe sets itself up and performs in the same manner as a four-piece rock band. Alongside this visual theme are those of the spiritual world, depicted in varying forms of light and colour as a stunning accent to the traditional palettes and environments. To see Yuasa’s handling of these near ukiyo-e styles and weave through them his modern instincts of chaotic fluidity, abstract colours, and moments of brutal darkness is nothing short of breathtaking.
What feels most unfortunate is that Masaaki Yuasa stepped down from the presidency of his animation studio Science Saru in 2020, Inu-Oh being finished by him as a freelance director. The idea that we may not see more energizing gems from Yuasa’s strange and beautiful mind is certainly heartbreaking. However, retirement does mean so little in the artistic sphere; but if this opulent, unflinching, hopeful tale of art and why we create is the closing of a chapter for Yuasa, do yourself a favour and see how the story ends.