Film Review: ‘Inu-Oh’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Cast: Avu-chan, Mirai Moriyama, Tasuku Emoto
Runtime: 98 minutes
Written by Elisabeth Fong
History became way more interesting once I realised it’s a medley of big and small stories. Wars no longer existed just as dates and names of places, but became an abundance of the smaller, seemingly inconsequential stories yearning to be heard. Masaaki Yuasa embraces the precious smaller narratives in Inu-Oh, a film that seeks to “reclaim what has been erased”.
Based on Hideo Furukawa’s novel ‘Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh’, Inu-Oh is about an unlikely musical duo who changed Noh theatre in 14th century Japan. Blind giwa player Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) and a disfigured dancer Inu-Oh (Avu-chan), both outcasts from society, tell the stories of the forgotten Heike warriors through flamboyant, wonder-inducing performances. When Tomona first meets Inu-Oh, we see the synergy between the two – Tomona tapping into his wild side and Inu-Oh his sensitivity. Together, they share their art with the world and reinvigorate the art form of Noh theatre.
Noh theatre is one of the oldest art forms in Japan, a restrained dance-drama popular among the 14th-century aristocracy, not necessarily among the commoners. It’s heavily codified and regulated, with a strong emphasis on tradition.
Contrast this with Tomona and Inu-Oh, two mavericks who throw away the rulebooks of how entertainment should be done. Yuasa’s use of rock music works particularly well here, especially because of how different it sounds from Noh. Biwa-mania (I’m coining it now) makes sense in a rock ballad about breaking the restrictions of a structured art form that suppresses expressionistic desires. It has flair, soulfulness, and causes the body to move involuntarily, giving itself over to the beat.
Most importantly though, their performances are sincere. They understand that they are but vessels for the lost Heike spirits to tell their story to say, here we are.
Watching this film is a reminder of how beautiful and powerful animation can be. Inu-Oh is emblematic of his distinct, fluid and expressionistic styles (Tatami Galaxy, Ping Pong the Animation). The film moves with fearlessness as it morphs into new shapes, adding a sensitivity and uniqueness to how both Inu-Oh and Tomona see the world. In one of my favourite moments (of which there are many), Yuasa uses broad, oily brushstrokes and silhouetted impressions to depict Tomona’s senses as he loses his eyesight and finds solace in the biwa.
Yuasa also showcases his visual storytelling ability with pure, unadulterated spectacle. One of my favourite experiences with the film was thinking to myself, “There’s no way they’d top this” — before the film goes on to do exactly that. It is not spectacle for spectacle’s sake either. They convey the immensity, beauty and wonder of these new stories, treating them as precious rights for a once-in-a-lifetime movie.
The spectacle is also grounded in reality, as if it really could, or did happen. It’s tangible, with all the props, stage effects, and lights. It builds towards a fully immersive climax that is beautiful visually and emotionally. I tapped my fingers, bopped my head and moved to the music, embracing every bit of the overhead shredding of a biwa, to bouncers in traditional garb, and the opening beats to “We Will Rock You”.
Inu-Oh is an elegiac tale, neither naive nor constrained by what has been done. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of the big histories, the narrative filled with slain priests and storytellers that stray from the book. But it also basks in the liberation of a performance, living for themselves, and for telling the small stories that can grow into big stories.
This article is produced as part of the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the Author
When not reading letterboxd’ reviews or watching fan-made videos, Elisabeth talks about movies and tv shows on her podcast Critical Cliches.