Every story ever told really happened. Stories are where memories go when they’re forgotten.
– Doctor Who, Season 9 Episode “Hell Bent”
Adapted from novelist Hideo Furukawa’s “The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-Oh Chapters,” Inu-Oh is a tale of stories and how the control (or release) of them can reshape an entire community. Written by Akiko Nogi’s (The Voice of Sin, I Am A Hero) and directed by Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), audiences are taken on a journey through time and space to the 14th-century Muromachi period in Japan, yet very little feels foreign as Yuasa employs an anachronistic approach, borrowing from musicians like Queen and Michael Jackson to create a memorable and toe-tapping tale of friendship, song, and murder. After a stint on the festival circuit in 2021 and a wider release in 2022, Inu-Oh is now available on digital and physical formats in the U.S. thanks to GKids Films and Shout! Factory, with the physical format including over an hour of bonus materials. The time is now to hear the stories once lost and given new life through the utilization of time-bending music.
If you’d like to learn about Inu-Oh without spoilers, please head to our initial theatrical release review. Moving forward, we can’t promise that the rhythm set by Inu-Oh and Tomona won’t compel the truth to come out.
At one time in Japan there existed two courts, one in the North and one in the South, and they fought in order to proclaim the title of the true emperor of Japan. In the aftermath of their war, three relics of believed extraordinary power, hidden at that time, were sought. One, a mask, was secretly held by a famous Noh performer seeking to enrich himself, either unaware or uncaring that the use of the mask came with the price that his unborn son would be afflicted with a severe deformity. Some years later, in a fishing village, men appeared with knowledge of another relic, a sword, and hired Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) and his father to dreg it up, both unaware that the price of success would be Tomona’s sight and his father’s life. While wandering Japan on a quest for revenge against the people responsible for the calamity that befell them, Tomona makes friends with a biwa priest, and comes to love the music that the priests played. Soon after arriving in Kyoto, Tomona meets Inu-Oh (voiced by Avu-chan) and the pair discover a shared fondness for music and dance, only for their friendship to reveal the spirits around them with stories desperate to be told. But as the two combine their talents to spread these previously forgotten tales, they invoke the ire of those who seek to maintain the established Noh style who soon come for the duo in ways which threaten all they’ve built, and each other.
A film like Inu-Oh, between the mythology, history, and approach to music, requires more than one viewing in order to fully understand what’s going on. In my initial view, I loved the film, but felt like some things weren’t as well explained or explored. On a second viewing (and Yuasa mentions in the bonus features that multiple viewings will certainly help to capture all that’s intended in the film), the things which felt wide, narrowed, and unexamined, were fully identified. For instance, it’s not until the second viewing that I truly realized that Inu-Oh wasn’t being healed by the spirits for making their stories known, he was having a curse removed piece-by-piece. In the beginning, we are introduced to his father, then an unknown man putting on a mask before performing, who dances as his wife gives birth. Without the awareness that it was *the mask* by virtue of being worn that caused the curse upon Inu-Oh, what transpires next, including the discovery that Inu-Oh’s father is the biwa serial killer mentioning in passing before Tomona travels to Kyoto, sharpens into focus. Though Tomona’s story never really reaches a satisfactory conclusion (he never avenges the death of his father) because he shifts his focus to Inu-Oh and their mission to tell the stories of the lost, the second viewing reveals that this transition is as much about Tomona finding his own voice and living for himself. If that’s missed the first time, even with the bookending of the lost soul Tomona being the narrator of this story 600 years later only to be reunited with his friend to spend eternity singing and dancing, recognizing it on the follow-up is far easier. In this way, it’s easier, as well, to recognize that Inu-Oh is as much about the stories we tell and the information that we learn immediately as it is about the stories we revisit and what we recognize or notice then. That stories, depending on the teller or the perspective of the listener, take on a different shape. Perhaps this is also why Inu-Oh begins in one form and ends in another, his voice inspiring others to see him differently and to discover something new.
Of the things that stood out, one that’s especially worth mentioning is how the script makes it clear that Inu-Oh is a happy individual in whichever form he takes. He relishes every waking day, never despairing or feeling left out of things when we first meet him nor becoming prideful or vain after the final reveal during the “Dragon Commander” performance. His form is his form, he is Inu-Oh. This is a rarity in storytelling, where the message may be the same but is delivered by way of the character taking part in some kind of fall from grace in order to learn it. Instead, the trouble in Inu-Oh comes rapidly at the end when word comes down that Inu-Oh is no longer allowed to sing the songs of the lost. He’s told that, if he does, Tomona will be killed, but, either because Inu-Oh doesn’t tell him this or because Tomoma doesn’t care, Tomona continues, refusing to deny the stories that want to be told before they are less than forgotten memories. On an initial watch, one may mistake Inu-Oh’s eagerness to stop to be a sign of vanity, but it’s actually the opposite. He’s as comfortable not singing those songs (totally unaware if the curse will return) as he is continuing and only cares for his friend. Of the animated films of late for mature audiences (or, at the very least teenage and higher), only Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio follows a similar path in which the whole movie the protagonists are told who to be and they don’t give a damn, delighted to be exactly who they are, unresponsive to the demands to conform.
The final thing that must be pointed out is that while there is an English-language option for those who prefer dubbed over subbed viewing, the songs remain in their original Japanese. As the spirit, for lack of a better term, of Inu-Oh is the significance of passing the stories of our ancestors down, that they didn’t cast actors to also sing the songs brings to me (a Jewish kid from Virginia) at great deal of joy. This is entirely understandable to a degree when Kaho Nakamura was replaced by Kylie McNeill in BELLE as the necessity for the lead character of Suzu/Belle didn’t *have* to be Japanese, but that tie to the country and its history exists strongly in Inu-Oh. So, if you were hoping to watch the film fully dubbed, you will have to do some reading after all.
The bonus features that accompany Inu-Oh’s home release are similar to prior recent releases like BELLE (2021) and Goodbye, Don Glees! (2022) with featurettes that focus on the artistry of the film, as well as allow for some investigation of the creative process behind the making of the film. Like with BELLE, home viewing audiences are guided on a creative journey in two different featurettes: “Masaaki Yuasa Draws Inu-Oh” and “The Whale Scene Breakdown.” In these featurettes, first, Yuasa, draws the various physical presentations of Inu-Oh from his original presentation as a child to his final visible form as a successful Noh performer. Rather than taking us step-by-step through the design process, Yuasa offers his insight into the specific details that make up each form. Given the specificity of all the details within the film, discovering that there’s no set length for Inu-Oh’s initially elongated arm, it only had to be exceptionally long, is fascinating. He also discussed, regarding the final form, how he drew inspiration form Bruce Lee to define the muscular but not large look of the fully decursed Inu-Oh. Similarly, over the course of 24 minutes, Yuasa guides audiences through the process of the second major musical sequence, “The Whale.” After providing some context to the story “The Whale” covers, he provides tidbits like Yuasa describing Inu-Oh’s initial backlit appearance to resemble that of Michael Jackson in concert. In addition, he discusses technical aspects of creating the scene as it relates to production design, lighting, editing, and choreography.
If your interest is less about the technical and more about Yuasa’s thoughts on the film in terms of adapting Furukawa’s novel, the cast, the songs, and more, on-disc there are two interviews totaling nearly 26 minutes in which Yuasa answers questions regarding the film. The first one, “Interview with Masaaki Yuasa,” is 12 minutes and, like other recent GKids home releases, is structured where home viewers see the questions via text and then Yuasa responds. We have no sense of who is conducting the interview or when, but it’s fair to say that it could be anywhere from the late 2021 festival release to around the 2022 U.S. release date. The second is a condensed portion of a Q&A from the US Premiere at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, California on August 5th, 2022. I say “condensed” because it’s clearly been edited so that we don’t hear much from the moderator or the translator working with Yuasa. This does create a nice flow in that we can just read what Yuasa says, but there is a general sense that we may be missing out on a few pieces of information. Put another way, where other home release materials, like with BELLE, provide what feels like an unedited, wide experience, this one feels more narrow and contained. In addition to these four featurettes, home audiences can also enjoy over five minutes of English and Japanese-language teasers and trailers from the various releases (theatrical/home) for Inu-Oh.
If one were to identify something that they wish were different about the home release, it’s that a jump-to option for the musical numbers would be incredible.
Do keep in mind that all of the above comes from someone who’s been listening to the soundtrack nonstop, immersing myself in Otomo Yoshihide’s musical compositions and the stirring singing voices of Avu-Chan and Mirai Moriyama, since the theatrical release in August 2022. The ability to rewatch, to reexamine, and to reexplore Yuasa’s work is something I’ve been primed for. While the on-disc options aren’t as exciting or as in-depth as other recent GKids releases, there’s still plenty to discover within, especially the little nuggets that tie this story of the past into the present.
Inu-Oh Special Features:
- Interview with Masaaki Yuasa (12:02)
- Q&A at US Premiere (13:47)
- Yuasa Draws Inu-oh (12:14)
- “The Whale” Scene Breakdown (24:03)
- Trailers and Teasers (5:39)
Available on digital December 20th, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Shout! Factory January 24th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Inu-Oh webpage.
To purchase, head to Shout! Factory’s Inu-Oh product webpage.