One of the oldest storytelling conveyances is the oral tradition. Before we could write or read, we spoke and the sounds we made transfixed audiences, transporting them to times before their present. With the advent of the written-word, one might think that stories would become more accessible, when, in actuality, classism-instilled gatekeeping prevented common folk from learning to read while the wealthy could. More damning and problematic than this, whomever did the printing held the power to decide which stories were immortalized in word and which stories were not. We may never know the voices and ideas that have been lost via this choice, the people and communities lost to someone’s egotistical decision. Sometimes these lost stories can be found through research and luck, other times, as imagined in director Masaaki Yuasa’s (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl) new film Inu-Oh, they can be found by listening to the spirits around you who’ve been waiting for their tales to be told. Imaginative, bold, and infectious, Yuasa’s Inu-Oh is an anachronistic multi-genre music fusion opera set in 14th-century Japan during the Muromachi period that’s as much a painful tale of greed and destruction as it is a celebration of artistic freedom and personal identity. Having its Quebec premiere during Fantasia International Film Festival, the story of Inu-Oh will have your toes tapping before your tears flow.
In the aftermath of two warring leaders there lived two boys in Japan: one, a fisherman’s son (Tomona, voiced by Mirai Moriyama) blinded by a terrible accident and, the other, born deformed and cast aside by his community (voiced by Avu-chan). By sheer coincidence, the two meet in Kyōto and develop a friendship born out of a similar positive outlook on life but solidified in their love of music and dance. As the two grow, Tomona joins the biwa priests, spreading the known stories of the Heike people, while the other continues to study the dances of Noh. However, one day, the self-named Inu-Oh realizes that he can commune with the spirits, learning stories that no others know, and he partners with Tomona to share their tales. Their partnership wows audiences throughout the land, each performance seeming magical in song, set, and execution while also transforming Inu-Oh physically at the conclusion of each story. But with notoriety comes envy and a desire to control that may very well see the end of them both.
Adapted from novelist Hideo Furukawa’s “The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-Oh Chapters,” Akiko Nogi’s (The Voice of Sin, I Am A Hero) screenplay requires the audience to maintain a firm grip as it jumps in time from the present to 600 years into the past, gathering up significant historical knowledge quickly, before tying all the threads together in a poignant conclusion. In a way, the script begins with a series of questions that the audience is almost prone to forget among the incredible song and dance numbers, but, for those who aren’t swept up, the answers come with an incredible power. See, from the general summary above, one view of Inu-Oh is it’s a tale of friendship, pure friendship connected by innocence and art appreciation. In truth, amid the flurry of information the audience receives at the start, Nogi drops a series of hints regarding the connection between the boys’ respective missions, even if they themselves forget them over the course of the story. Helping to delineate one idea from another within the narrative are alterations in animation from one period to the next, one space to the next. Given that the Muromachi period itself was a time of integration between Japanese and Chinese cultures, the animation representing differing styles (more traditional in the presence of Lord Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (voiced by Tasuku Enomoto) versus more present-day modern when out in the public) not only supports the more historical-based aspects of Inu-Oh but beautifully highlights the classist elements at play in the script. Specifically, those in power who wish to retain it via tradition and those who break from tradition to create and empower something new. From here, there’s a natural extension to the musical elements developed by Otomo Yoshihide (Beneath the Shadow) which blend traditional biwa music to modern rock and hip-hop. At first, the very bluesy songs Tomona sings appear out of place in the period (birth of rock n’ roll as we know it is in 1950s U.S. with artists like Bill Halley and His Comets, The Orioles, and Fats Domino) until one realizes that, like the animation, the genre of music is specific to the characters as rebels within a system they are not a part of. As the three aspects (narrative, animation, and music) connect and intertwine, Inu-Oh reveals itself to be as much an adaptation of the past as it is a very current proclamation for today.
As enticing as the above is, and the music truly is toe-tapping, it’s the story of identity and friendship that makes it memorable. In both cases, the boys would be understandably morose about life. Tomona was happy swimming in the sea, helping his father dive for oceanic creatures to sell to his community, and that was all taken away when his father was hired to search for a presumed magical relic that would help preserve the Ashikaga rule. The job left Tomona fatherless and blind, yet, instead of wallowing, he went off, guided by the spirit of his father (voiced by Yutaka Matsushige), to discover the mystery of who hired him and why. In the process, Tomona learns of the biwa priests, joins them, and begins sharing the stories of the Heike. To join, however, Tomona must change his name as a sign of commitment to the biwa tribe. As much joy as this brought to Tomona, it meant cutting himself off from his father, as the spirit could only see him when he went by his given name. Conversely, Inu-Oh was born without a name and, it’s implied, without a home, fending for himself each day, save for the dogs that would give him comfort and companionship in the cold. He has far more reason to be bitter, yet he never seems to care what others think of him. That his best friend is blind only matters in that Tomona didn’t judge him for his natural disfigurement. And where Tomona lost his connection to his family by changing his name, Inu-Oh, a name meaning “King of the Dogs,” gained a connection to the spirits upon assuming his own. Culturally, names connect us to the past, telling us from whom we come, yet, in Inu-Oh, there’s a modernist view that the name we have also connects us to the present, the found family giving us as much meaning as the past. That the two become significantly bonded through their names, even as Tomona changes his name a second time in support of Inu-Oh and his stories, speaks not just to the connection the narrative seeks to infer, but the greater theme of love and friendship. Confusing as it sometimes is within the context of the story, the way it all comes together in the concluding moments not only drives the point home, but does so in a way that’s as filled with a love only two best friends could possibly create.
Unlike recent GKids Films releases BELLE (2021) and Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko (2022), Inu-Oh may require multiple viewings in order to grasp Yuasa and Nogi’s full intent. Thankfully, the film is a wild ride powered by songs that you can feel from head to toe, making the desire to revisit an easy one to placate, given the chance. I, for one, particularly enjoy the anachronistic moments, not because one song evokes a little “Bohemian Rhapsody”-era Queen, but because they are a stark reminder that no matter how frequently we paint the historical past as a place of culture and art that today somehow shies away from or clamors toward, the past contained rebels, delinquents, and all the fights for identity we are fighting for today. It’s just different masters and different locations, with all the ideas the same.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
In select theaters August 12th, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.