Yuasa Masaaki continues his winning streak: he’s probably been the best director in the world over the past five years, or at the very least the most productive great director. Since 2017, he has produced three acclaimed TV series (Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks 2020, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) along with four feature films: the definitive One Crazy Night romance Night is Short, Walk on Girl, the off-beat Little Mermaid variation Lu Over the Wall, the heart-breaking post-romance Ride Your Wave and now Inu-oh, a medieval rock opera about the power of rock and roll to connect us to our past, find our true selves, and help us overcome our terrible fathers.
Inu-oh begins with the story of Tomo (they’ll be, at various times, “Tomona”, “Tomoichi”, and “Tomoari” throughout the story). As a child, Tomona works with his father diving for treasure lost at sea 600 years ago during the definitive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans, passed down through history in the Tale of the Heike, a collection of stories about the war that plays a somewhat similar role in Japanese literary history as The Iliad or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1371 by Kakuichi, part of a band of traveling blind monks that recited the various tales accompanied by music on the biwa, a lute-like stringed instrument, pretty much just as the Greek bards would have done (and, if he was an actual person, the blind poet Homer himself). What Yuasa’s film, written by Nogi Akiko, asserts is that there were other tales of the Heike, tales which were so powerful in their truth that they were able to magically transform their tellers into the greatest versions of their selves.
Tomona is blinded by buried treasure in an accident which also kills his father. Wandering the countryside, he takes up with the blind monks and over the next decade or so learns the biwa and all the various tales. One day he meets a malformed young masked man (legs too short, one arm way too long, scales for skin, and eyes in the wrong places) who loves music and dance. He’d grown up all but disowned by his father, a dancer of Heike tales in an early form of Noh theatre called sarugaku, made to live and eat with the family dogs. One day, overcome with the spirit of music, he dances and his legs are transformed into normal human limbs. Tomoichi (name changed to reflect his status as a member of the blind monk troupe) deduces that the spirits of the lost Heike soldiers are rewarding the as yet unnamed man for dancing and singing their story. The two then do what comes naturally: form a rhythm and blues band to spread the untold tales of the Heike (whispered to them by the spirits of the dead) far and wide.
The second half of the film is dominated by their music, as Tomoari (a third name, adopted to show their new-found indepence, along with a fluid expression of gender) incants lengthy rock introductions to three spectacular performances by the newly self-christened Inu-Oh, songs and dances which heal his limbs and skin and face. But they run afoul of the shogun, who doesn’t have time for new stories, and especially Inu-oh’s father, who turns out to have been a villain all along, like so many rock and roll dads. It all ends tragically, as a rock opera should. Rock star revolutionaries don’t tend to last long, at least not in that form. They shine bright and either burn out or become something less spectacular (think Ziggy Stardust morphing into the Thin White Duke, or the Wild Mercury Dylan turning into a Regular Dad). Music can keep stories alive, or bring them back from the dead, and it can change people’s lives for better and for worse, but is it enough to sustain them? For that, the maker of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Inu-oh would seem to suggest we need animated cinema. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.