There is an inferno burning in Masaaki Yuasa. That can be the only explanation as to why he has become one of the most important animation directors working today. It can also be the only explanation for the breadth of his imagination, from the wildly charming campfire bop of Lu Over the Wall to the drunken firefly romp The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, and most recently the epic Netflix apocalyptic series Japan Sinks: 2020. Every project sees a complete reinvention, from adorably cartoonish to freakishly fantastical. But his latest, magical and bloody historical musical drama Inu-Oh, is a rock & roll, stadium show, pyrotechnic extravaganza.
Like Neil Gaiman's punchy update of the Viking Prose Edda or Maria Dahvana Headley's radical reinterpretation of Beowulf, novelist Hideo Furukawa updated the 14th-century grand historical epic Tale of the Heike, recounting the epic struggle for Japan that roiled the nation two centuries earlier. Into this translation into modern Japanese, he added Heike Monogatari: Inu-Ō no Maki (The Tale of the Heike: Chapter of Inu-Ō). This new story riffed on the story of a wandering musician, Tomona (voiced here by Moriyama), blinded by a magical sword, and his friendship with the titular Ino-Oh (Avu-chan), a young man whose body has been twisted by a curse into a form scarcely recognizable as human. Yet when he dances, his body reshapes itself. Even more fortunately for him, Tomona can't see the deformities that have exiled Inu-Oh from everyday society. Two dissidents, two rejects. So of course they invent rock & roll.
Yes, you read that right. In Yuasa's version, the past was just as cool as today, and the revolution in Japanese Noh theatre brought about by the real Inu-Ō is attributed to melding of the formal traditions of courtly gagaku performances with the street carnival glitz of sarugaku. Here, Inu-Ō is reinvented as Inu-Oh, a Bowie-esque transgressive performance artist. The change makes sense considering their respective nicknames – the King of the Dogs becomes the alpha of the Diamond Dogs. He and Tomona (based in no small part on Kakuichi, the blind monk who was equally revolutionary in the development of Noh) get their "Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show" moment with a stadium spectacle reenvisioning of a performance drawn from the Tale of the Heike, a 25-minute musical jaw-dropper that skips between Queen theatrics and Pink Floyd AV experience. Inu-Oh and Tomona are the classic frontman/guitarist pairing – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Liam and Noel Gallagher – butting heads and producing perfect rock & roll.
But Yuasa isn't just transposing modern rock sensibilities onto antiquity. Inu-Oh delves into the ways that biwa-playing monks were used to disseminate an orthodox history, as approved by the shogun. Inu-Oh and Tomona's versions threaten the established order, and in their pop culture rebellion there is real dissent. This adds extra tension to the Muromachi era's answer to the Glitter Twins, as the age-old dilemma of selling out to the man or keeping true to the music, man, becomes the driving beat of an increasingly dark and tragic third act.
But Yuasa is also a fearless optimist, and in the closing echoes of Inu-Oh there is a clarion call for the simple power of music, for how a great song can resonate through the ages, and how two boys with a tune can always find each other.
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