New animated musical from the famed ‘Ride Your Wave’ and ‘Devilman Crybaby’ director tells a revisionist tale of the legendary 14th-century Noh performer Inu-Oh - and the blind biwa player Tomona – who take Japan by storm; film hits U.S. theaters today.
It’s a story of fame born out of misfortune, friendship born out of isolation and, most of all, the music born out of unbridled creativity.
Is it true? Who cares.
“When I was thinking about the past and imagining what happened in the past, I didn't want to restrict myself to what's been written or recorded in history books,” says director Masaaki Yuasa, known for his films Ride Your Wave, Lu Over the Wall and shows such as Devilman: Crybaby. “I want the audience to just enjoy the movie, just like the audience does watching Inu-Oh’s performances.”
Yuasa’s latest gem, Inu-Oh, hits theaters today. The film, produced by Aniplex and Science SARU with distribution by GKIDS, is a revisionist rock opera based on the novel Tales of the Heike: INU-OH by Hideo Furukawa.
The story’s protagonist, Inu-Oh, is born to an esteemed family of Noh theater dancers, but his affliction from an ancient curse has left him on the margins of society. When he meets the blind musician Tomona, a young biwa priest haunted by his past, Inu-oh discovers a captivating ability to dance. The pair quickly become business partners and inseparable friends as crowds flock to their electric, larger-than-life concerts. But when those in power threaten to break up the band, Inu-oh and Tomona must dance and sing to uncover the truth behind their creative gifts.
“The project came about when a producer from Asmik Ace brought it up to me, and then that was when I first read Furukawa’s novel,” says Yuasa. “I thought the concept was very interesting. Noh is currently a very stiff, very hard to get into art form in Japan. But his depiction of Noh as being a popular, really easygoing art form was interesting to me.”
Noh is a form of classical Japanese dance-drama that has been performed since the 14th century, when Yuasa’s film takes place. The dancer’s performances, most often made up of slow, graceful movements, were inspired by the stories of biwa priests who told tales from what they picked up in their travels – especially those about the Heike, a warrior clan that once ruled Japan.
“When I first started on this project, I didn't know much about Noh, but I was curious how the stories of these Heike are told, but that the stories of the performers who perform the Heike stories are not told,” notes Yuasa. “The protagonist, Inu-Oh, his name was recorded in history, but no record of any of his performances have survived. To be able to take Furukawa’s novel and adapt that into an animation is very meaningful and very important in this current time today.”
In addition to character design work by Tekkonkinkreet’s and Ping Pong the Animation’s Taiyo Matsumoto, Inu-Oh also features vocals from Japanese musician, producer and songwriter Avu-Chan (Avu Barazono), who debuted as the lead vocalist and songwriter of the band Queen Bee in 2009, and the band Gokumontō Ikka in 2015 and has provided music for the animated series Tokyo Ghoul: re in 2018 and Dororo in 2019.
“I really feel that the stuff that happened in Japanese history, isn't that different from what we're experiencing right now,” says Avu-Chan, who voices for Inu-Oh in the film. “There are still people who are going to suppress us, or who are going to censor us, but it’s hard to suppress everybody. There will be people who get away from that suppression and rise up and begin anew.”
Having also appeared in the Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avu-Chan is very familiar with stage performance and spectacle and Inu-Oh, they feel, tops the visuals of any animation they’ve seen before.
“There aren't that many animations that have this kind of energy or vibe,” says Avu-Chan. “There are a lot of animations that are beautiful or well-animated, but I really don't think there's an animation that takes you away from reality quite like this.”
To top it off, in a very personal way, Avu-Chan felt more connected to the character of Inu-Oh than any other character they’ve ever personified.
“As an actor, I had the opportunity to act on stage, such as with Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but, with the case of Inu-Oh, it was very different,” notes Avu-Chan. “I felt like Inu-Oh was someone in whom I saw myself or maybe the piece to a missing part inside of me. That’s how much of a connection I had with the character.”
And though that connection certainly fueled a lot of Avu-Chan’s goose-bump-giving performances with Inu-Oh’s fire-breathing, dragon-conjuring, mob-mashing rock shows, the musician says it was Yuasa’s passion for the project that drew out everyone’s best on production.
“I've worked with director Yuasa on Devilman Crybaby, and I do feel that he's very particular about things and, in order to get that particularity, everything from the base up is all planned and meticulously detailed,” says Avu-Chan. “I think he's very original and unique and a lot of people call him a genius and a visionary. But I believe that he puts in a lot of effort and then I think that draws out his genius.”
That gift for detail was one Yuasa applied heavily to the show’s animation, wanting to portray a world that was both believable and completely blew the minds of viewers.
“I tried to base a lot of the animation style on reality but, like a stage performance, I tried to imagine how the audience would see it, and then make it to be a little bit more fantastical,” he explains. “Or, because Tomona is blind, I tried to imagine what he sees and what it would be like.”
Understandably, this approach filled Inu-Oh with spellbinding and symbolic imagery that, though amazing, isn’t always straightforward. But, then again, music itself is often open to interpretation.
“When you watch a Noh performance, not everything is spelled out and they expect you to use your imagination to try to imagine what's going on in the performance,” Yuasa shares. “I incorporated that into Inu-Oh and I think that's also expressed in Inu-Oh’s performances.”
He continues, “The movies that I tend to like do not explain everything. I want to imagine what the intentions were of the creator and all that, but it also gives me space to interpret what I feel. Having to explain everything, every single element that's going on in the movie, goes against the theme of the movie. So I did pack a lot of information into the movie, but I made sure that it's still enjoyable, even if you know nothing about Japanese history.”
But, for all of Inu-Oh’s open-to-interpretation sequences, there is a message that Yuasa wanted to spotlight with the film.
“Even though the Muromachi period is a long, long time ago, what is recorded in history about the Muromachi Era is mostly stories about the samurai or the nobility,” he says. “But it's important to remember that the peasants also existed and that they weren't all that different from us. They felt the same things as we do right now. They experienced the same stuff that we do.”
Avu-Chan says they were “expecting a history lesson” when they first started working on the film, but, in the end, learned something much more valuable.
“Our world is really connected and there are so many things that we carry down from our ancestors and then pass on to our descendants, like a baton in a relay for our lives,” says Avu-Chan. “Even though it may be not left on record, there are so many things that happened or so many experiences that we all experienced. I realized the importance of knowing history and then using that to understand each other, and that I'm a part of history too.”
Avu-Chan says working on Yuasa’s film also lit a fire in them as a musician and that Inu-Oh is a role they will carry with them for the rest of their life, noting, “After working on Inu-Oh, a lot of ideas for new songs came up in my head. I really think ‘Inu-Oh: The Sequel’ continues within me. Maybe I can only say so much as Inu-Oh, but I hope it grows into something new and hope I can live on and leave a legacy.”