In anime, an art form with storytellers of such diverse talent and style, Masaaki Yuasa effortlessly stands out amongst his peers. Whether it’s the extended death fantasy of Mind Game that takes place, partly, inside a magic whale or an exercise in sheer, captivating solipsism that is The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Yuasa’s work constantly surprises and impresses in both storytelling and artistic style. Characters don’t so much walk as hurtle across the screen and reality is more of a suggestion than a concrete foundation. His storytelling, while mostly linear, will zag frequently into extended, exhilarating detours that still somehow manage to underline important themes in the overall work.
So a story about ancient Japanese culture, specifically No theater and biwa (a traditional stringed Japanese instrument similar to a guitar), by Yuasa was never going to be straightforward. Inu-Oh is the stage name of a deformed young man who hides his deformities, which include a face with eyes that are vertically aligned and an arm that is several times his body length. He is the youngest son of a famous No actor, but his family disavows him because of his appearance, and in fact, his father becomes angry with him when he tries some of the craft for himself. Inu-Oh ends up teaming up with a young, blind biwa player Tomona, who was struck blind when his father tried to retrieve a mythical sword.
What follows is an extended musical where both artists’ particular geniuses combine into an exhilarating form of music that immediately enthralls the masses. Tomona’s virtuosic biwa playing and Inu-Oh’s singing and dance moves combine into something resembling glam rock. Both Tomona and Inu-Oh adopt the gender-bending aesthetic of someone like a David Bowie or Iggy Pop and their concerts become increasingly grandiose and captivating, featuring fire eaters and special effects befitting arena rock. It is especially appropriate that Inu-Oh is voiced by Avu-chan, a gender-fluid performer who resolutely refuses any pronouns.
Yuasa gleefully runs fast and far with this anachronism and uses it to show how upsetting new art can be to the status quo. There is a subplot about a serial killer murdering biwa players that comes to a ghastly, if not entirely surprising, culmination at a concert that Inu-Oh and Tomona are asked to perform at the emperor’s court. Yet Yuasa isn’t one to necessarily settle into familiar storylines. He seems more content to delve into this reimagining of the past. Though fictional, this combination of two different art forms is not just how new art is created all the time, but the reaction that the conservative gatekeepers can have towards should be familiar to anyone well-versed in the topic. New art’s outright rejection to grudging acceptance to opportunistic co-opting is an arc we see in Inu-Oh but Yuasa doesn’t necessarily insist on.
Inu-Oh is a dizzying, pulsing celebration of art and how its creation can exhilarate in ways that few might have anticipated. It definitely stalls narrative-wise when the longer musical numbers keep going on almost interminably, but the film also invites audiences to rock out, dance, and move to the beat while Yuasa takes us on a trip through his wonderfully twisted mind. In the end, the film is also a touching portrait of a friendship between these two men who found validation and comfort in art, a theme that anyone can enjoy.