Inu-Oh an Animated Masterpiece

By Michaele Jordan: Friends, I’m not unaware that some of you don’t share my enthusiasm for anime. So I try – really, I do! – not to burble on at you about any cute show that I happen to stumble upon. Even though there are so many cute shows out there! But now I’ve found something genuinely special. And I think that you – my fellow fans, you seekers of something beyond the ordinary and prosaic – need to know that this is out there.

It’s called Inu-Oh. Here are the obligatory credits:

Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Producer: Eunyoung Choi, Fumie Takeuchi
Writers: Masaaki Yuasa, Yutaka Matsushige, Mirai Moriyama, Yoshihide Otomo, Akiko Nogi, Tasuku Emoto
Cast: Inu-Oh voiced by Avu-chan
Tomona voiced by Mirai Moriyama
Inu-Oh’s Father voiced by Kenjiro Tsuda
Tomona’s Father voiced by Yutaka Matsushige
Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu voiced by Tasuku Emoto

The short form: it’s an animated musical about a crazed rock band led by a magical monster and a blind priest. They take 14th century Japan by storm with tales of a long-dead drowned child-emperor and his army. Naturally, they get in trouble with the government.

So, does it sound weird enough for you yet? Because there’s more. Beware spoilers.

This film is a story of transformation. Even the story itself transforms as it progresses. It’s an animated film adaptation of a novel entitled The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-Oh Chapters, which is a (loose) adaptation of an historical classic, The Tale of the Heike. Officially it retells the transformation of an ancient form of theater, Sarugaku (monkey music), into the classical Noh theatre which is still practiced today. An abiding legend claims this change was launched by a court performer named Inu-Oh, or King of Dogs. (A stage name, I’m guessing, if he really existed at all.)

We start with traffic on a rainy night, obviously modern day. Except the first character we see is a musician in traditional dress playing a biwa – that’s an ancient stringed instrument – telling the audience that this all happened long ago. Long, long ago. Long, long, long ago.

So then it starts. Late 14th century. The Emperor of the Northern Court (never mind how he came to be Emperor of just the Northern Court. The government has become divided. Think Avignon Papacy, and keep moving) is involved in negotiations to reunite the separate courts. He is bewailing his misfortune, in that he does not have the Sacred Regalia which symbolized the ancient emperors. If only he had those, he’d obviously be the true (and only) emperor. Were they really lost forever at the battle of Dan-no-ura? Couldn’t somebody go find them for him?

Oops! No! So maybe it started before that. Late 12th century. We see a broad river, which narrows to flow around a curve. Approaching the curve from one side is a fleet of ships with red sails – quite tiny ships, since the viewpoint has had to draw back some distance to show them all. They are such pretty little things, like graceful water birds. This does not look like war, for all that we see a similar fleet of ships coming toward them. (Not quite as pretty. Their sails are white – in Japan, the color of death.)

The viewpoint closes in to show a woman on the deck of a ship with red sails, holding a child, and telling him they are going to visit the palace of the Dragon King. Grasping a small trunk, she leaps over the side. We watch her, and the child, and the trunk sink down, down, down. This is an image that has been burned into the heart of every Japanese school child. They may not pay much attention in history class, but they know the battle of Dan-no-ura. That little boy was the last of the Heiki emperors, and the woman was his grandmother. And this dramatic death was the most important turning point in Japanese history. We, too, will see this image more than once.

So let’s go back to when we thought it started before. Late fourteenth century. Or at least we think that’s when this scene is. We see a box with writing on it, tied with a single string. Given the context, we think it may be the box that went down with the little emperor. Or maybe not. The box is opened to reveal a glowing purple mask and a man puts it on.  It is not one of the Sacred Regalia.

Here we go again. So it starts. Definitely late fourteenth century. We meet a different little boy, also deep underwater. But Tomona is a few years older than the late prince, and in no danger of drowning. He runs home, and finds his father accepting a contract to search the underwater ruins for the Sacred Regalia. They don’t really expect to find anything. The waters have been searched many times. But they do! They find a case, and extract a sword. Tomona’s father draws the sword from its sheath (maybe to see if it’s the sword they’re looking for?) No matter the reason, drawing that sword is a hideous mistake. It’s too sacred to be handled by just anybody. A gigantic blade of light sweeps across the scene. Tomona is instantly blinded, and while he is still groping around, asking his father what has happened, we see that the magical blade has sliced Tomona’s father in two.

One last time: and so it starts (And this time I mean it. I won’t make you start over again, no matter what happens.) Still late fourteenth century. We see a dreadful creature. It has two feet, but no legs. It has a left hand which – like the feet—seems to be attached directly to the vaguely spherical lump of its body. But the right hand has an arm. And, oh, what an arm! It’s over six feet long. We don’t see a face, but there is a hairy lump emerging from what is probably the chest. There’s a very large gourd hanging over the front of the lump. Assuming that it is a mask, then the two holes punched into the gourd are not where you would expect eyeholes to be.

This unhappy creature crawls around aimlessly, ducking pedestrians, who are always abusive, until it comes to a building where a dance troupe is practicing. The troupe’s leader is extremely dissatisfied with the performance he is supervising, ordering the dancers to do their steps over and over again. But the creature is enchanted, and hops around, trying to dance along with them. Indeed, he gets so excited, he grows legs. He still receives a lot of abuse from strangers, but at least now he can away at high speed.

So that’s your first two transformations. A happy boy is transformed into a blind orphan, and a crawling blob is transformed into a tall, dancing monster. In this place and time, the blind do not have a lot of options. But many of them end up learning to play the biwa, and joining a monastic guild, which offers a way of earning a living and gaining a family of sorts. However, the guild requires him to take a guild name, Tomoichi. This alienates him from his father’s ghost, but Tomoichi (né Tomona) sees it as a reasonable price to pay for a place to sleep nights .

The creature has fallen into the habit of lifting his mask when harassed, and watching all his abusers run away screaming. But surprise! When he tries this trick on Tomoichi, it doesn’t work! Plus this boy who doesn’t scream, even asks politely what his name is (although he doesn’t have one yet) plays wonderful music! The two form an eternal bond on the spot, and are launched together into their next transformation: Rock stars!

There are other transformations in store!

I will tell you no more. Some may accuse me of having committed spoilers already. And yet I have only told you the beginning. Or rather, the beginnings, of which, as you have already seen, there are many. The story is complex, with deep historical roots – which is why I have told you so many beginnings. The average Japanese would have no trouble with these roots, any more than you would have trouble with the historical roots of a Robin Hood movie (which are also convoluted, if you care to study up.).

You don’t need the details, just a rough familiarity with the basic background. Relieved of confusion about why a magic sword would kill anybody that draws it, or why there are two emperors or who or what the Shogun was (the national warlord, who had a lot more power than either emperor, currently Ashikaga) or why do they keep calling that half naked singer a priest? Tomoichi (or Tomari, as he becomes) sure doesn’t look like a priest! (Oh, and don’t let the name changes throw you. Japanese history is full of people changing their names. It’s a thing with them. So just roll with it)

Just delight in the amazing imagery. There’s lots of magic – which is entirely outdone by the clever low-tech substitutions for the modern high-tech glitz required in rock band visuals. There’s beautiful scenery, evocative portraits of poverty, and amazing transformations. I had to watch this movie twice just to keep up with the animation.

And there’s music: classical biwa and raucous rock (also played on a biwa.) There’s dancing. Even aside from Inu-Oh’s wild cavortings, there is the slow, delicate stepping of kimono clad court dancers. So you can see for yourself  what Inu-Oh and Tomari are rebelling against. And since it is a rebellion, whether or not the protagonists are self-aware enough to know it, there are plots and cops, and the hard, imperial hand. The emperor may not be the equal of the shogun, but he’s got enough clout to get what he wants.

I absolutely loved this movie. I hope you will, too. It’s available on Hulu, both dubbed and subtitled.

One thought on “Inu-Oh an Animated Masterpiece

  1. I’m somewhat neutral on anime. I’ve loved some but mostly I don’t track it. This looks very interesting and something I will check out. Thanks.

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