[Review] Inu-Oh: They Will (They Will) Rock You

In an era where so much of the anime we find in cinemas and theatres is formed of sequels, remakes and retellings, it’s always a breath of fresh air to see a theatrical release that stands alone, or something that adapts material we might be less familiar with. With his latest theatrical release Inu-Oh, Masaaki Yuasa turns his hand to adaptating a modern story inspired by a 700-year-old Japanese literary epic and—in true Yuasa fashion—brings his own style and flare by turning this work of fiction into a bonafide rock opera.

Basing his projects on self-expression, emotion and evolution, [Yuasa] tackles topics like love, individualism and marginalisation […]

For those enthusiastic about the creative minds behind the anime industry, Masaaki Yuasa will need no introduction, but for those who may never have been interested in the behind-the-scenes of anime production and the great people within, lend me your ears.

Hayao Miyazaki: the man behind the greatest films Ghibli has to offer. Hideaki Anno: the brain responsible for Neon Genesis Evangelion and its dive into humanity’s psyche and teenage ego death. Satoshi Kon: who commanded such respect that his legacy inspired the most revered of Hollywood directors. And Masaaki Yuasa: a director unrestrained by genre, championing themes of love, acceptance and kindness in his works. Basing his projects on self-expression, emotion and evolution, he tackles topics like love, individualism and marginalisation though concepts as diverse as romance, science fiction, disaster drama, body horror and—with the release of Inu-Ohmusical and performance!

Inu-Oh (“King of Dogs”) is, as we established, a theatrical anime from the mind of Masaaki Yuasa (Mind Game; Devilman Crybaby) and his colleagues at animation studio Science SARU. Inu-Oh is not an entirely original piece of fiction however; the film loosely adapts the story of a 2017 Japanese novel “Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh”, which in itself is a modern expansion of the 1300s literary epic “The Tale of the Heike” , Japan’s answer to Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. Inu-Oh is set in 14th Century Japan – a time of wandering samurai, warring clans vying for power, shogun rulers and travelling storytellers. It follows two children: the first is the treasure-diving Tomona who finds himself blind after an accident. The second is a nameless child born cursed and deformed with three arms and a sideways face, raised by their family as nothing more than a pet dog. Tomona trains to become a “biwa” priest, a lute-playing musical storyteller that Western fantasy might call a bard, whilst the child with no name discovers a love for song, dance and performing and adopts the name Inu-Oh—King of Dogs. Through a chance meeting on Tomona’s travels, the two form an unlikely (but not unexpected) friendship, and start to travel Japan performing songs and telling the stories of the Heike clan and those who lost their lives fighting for control of Japan in that era.

Is [Inu-Oh] ridiculous? Kind of. Do you need to suspend your disbelief to fully embrace what your ears are hearing? Certainly. Does the whole thing work? Abso-goddamn-lutely.

It is at this point—when Tomona and Inu-Oh begin to perform together—where this otherwise inocuous piece of historical-inspired fiction takes a wild turn. Tomona begins to break free from the shackles of how his biwa mentors taught him to play his instrument and creates what we know as good old-fashioned rock-and-roll, baby, and our titular cursed child is on board. Together, Tomona and Inu-Oh begin to write original music inspired by the stories of the Heike souls and find themselves touring Japan as prototypical rockstars; our two protagonists re-invent what it means to be a storyteller, innovating with catchy choruses, soaring guitar solos and crowd interaction.

Is this ridiculous? Kind of. Do you need to suspend your disbelief to fully embrace what your ears are hearing? Certainly. Does the whole thing work? Abso-goddamn-lutely.

The music composed for the film by avant-garde jazz composer Otomo Yoshihide draws very clear inspiration from the hits of Queen, to the tone of being able to map exactly which of the British band’s hits inspired which song—one of the first compositions Tomona and Inu-Oh perform, entitled The Whale, follows the vocal melodies Freddie Mercury’s sings on We Will Rock You (and even directly lifts the iconic “boom-boom-CLAP” drumbeat from the same song!), whilst the film-closing Dragon Commander‘s piano, vocal harmonies and wailing guitar licks harkens back to Queen’s 1977 smash hit We Are The Champions. The voice of Inu-Oh, a singer by the name of “Avu-chan” puts on an absolute show of these songs, with their talent and vocal control shining through in this odd hybridisation of ’80’s hair rock and Japanese traditional; there were occasions within their harmonies where I could hear Freddie Mercury himself being channeled! I sincerely hope that AllTheAnime (Anime Ltd) release the soundtrack in future, because I want it all!

I don’t intend to dwell on the plot and film content itself too much as I am the furthest thing from knowledgable one man could be on Japanese literary epics and the history of the biwa lute and the lifestyle of the Japanese in the 1200s. Don’t stop me, though, as I am a lot more knowledge on rock music, and Inu-Oh‘s rock music is good! With that said, there are a few comments I would like to make on themes that made themselves clear to me even on my first watch!

Though the film is set 700 years ago, there are certain themes running throughout Inu-Oh that feel incredibly relevant to our modern day lives; themes of individuality and discovery, rebellion, marginalisation and stories being lost to history that plenty of viewers will understand and relate to. Both Tomona and Inu-Oh play with gender presentation and expectations throughout the film, frequently styling themselves in androgynous ways; Tomona is described by antagonistic characters as “dressed like a prostitute” multiple times! (As an aside, Inu-Oh’s own voice actor Avu-chan lives outside of any gender binary themself and was a wonderful casting choice). Additionally, both leads are marginalised and judged for disabilities and appearances and find solace in performing and turn to music as an outlet for pride, rebellion and to tell stories of people who can no longer tell their own and who have been lost to history; parallels to both sexual, gender and racial minorities are rampant throughout the film. The conclusion of the film is one that I shan’t talk about in-depth (spoilers!), but even the way that the writing and production staff closed Tomona and Inu-Oh’s story arcs reflects both the acceptance and rejection minorities and marginalised people face and tackle in the real world.

Inu-Oh is yet another production which Masaaki Yuasa and Science SARU knocked it out of the park with, and the blend of the historical fiction of legends and epics blended with the Queen-style rock opera musical comes out fantastically. Yuasa was under pressure to deliver after his return to TV anime with Keep Your Hands off Eizouken and Japan Sinks: 2020 as, for me, he is at his best when directing theatrical anime films. Like all of Yuasa’s productions, the visual style and production shines bright, but a musical is only as good as its music. Thankfully, we are very fortunate that the soundtrack is fantastic and an absolute treat to listen to—especially when 45 minutes of the film is spent on just that! If you get the chance to see this in your local cinema or theatre I urge you to watch it, and if you enjoy either coming of age stories about overcoming prejudice and thiving in spite of what society sees you as and what the world expects you to be like or musicals and rock operas, you will have an absolute blast with Inu-Oh and will find a lot to love about it.

I was born to love Yuasa and love him I do.


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