If you want different, this film is for you.

There’s no other way I can think of starting this review. If you like (or are at least interested in) anime, if you like musicals and if you’re bored of the usual modern-day Marvel-filled cinema selection, this film is for you. Once again, director Masaaki Yuasa, known for works such as Ping Pong: The Animation and The Tatami Galaxy, has gifted us with a cinematic piece of masterful storytelling that no other director could have delivered.

Yuasa’s latest work Inu-Oh landed in UK cinemas this week and I was itching to go and see it for myself. I had been looking forward to it since 2020 when it was featured as part of Cloud Matsuri, a virtual event hosted by UK anime distributor, All the Anime. Two years of anticipation was behind this trip to my local cinema, but was it worth it?

Inu-Oh follows the story of two unique personalities – Tomona, a blind biwa player, and Inu-Oh, who was born with a curse that gave him three arms and a sideways face and raised by his family as nothing more than a pet dog. The two of them meeting happened by chance and as Tomona played his beloved biwa, Inu-Oh discovered a special ability of his own: his ability to dance. Becoming partners, the two of them soon discover that being unique isn’t necessarily a bad thing and they begin to pair together their talents and personalities in order to form huge crowds.

This is where it gets interesting, however. Set in 14th century Japan, the dances you may expect to see in Inu-Oh would be something along the lines of Noh mai, a traditional style of Japanese dance that is paired with melodies produced by flutes and tsuzumi, a small hand drum. Instead, this is where Yuasa’s uniqueness begins to shine, making Tomona form a troupe that plays melodies reminiscent of the 1970s and 1980s, referencing acts such as Queen, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix all whilst telling stories of the Heike clan – one of the clans that dominated Japanese politics during the Heian, Kamakura and Muromachi periods (c. 794AD-1573).

Experimentation is certainly a repeated element to the film. You can tell that Yuasa and his team experimented somewhat with the animation style of the film. For the majority of the film, you see everything taking place using Yuasa’s distinct style with a slightly faded colour palette. When showing what Tomona sees as a blind person, however, he starts to use a white canvas with landscapes and objects being messily sketched out similarly to crayon drawings. As the story progresses, more vibrant colours are used, arguably carrying a metaphor about taking one’s mask off and showing one’s true colours. Using and experimenting with the medium of animation in this noticeable way is rarely seen in mainstream films nowadays, perhaps with the exception of pieces about war or trauma. I do think that to see more experiments with animation like this, particularly in more light-hearted stories, would be incredible – it’s always impressive to see what they can do and how they interpret different elements of daily life using different animation methods.

The voice acting in Inu-Oh was phenomenal. The titular character is voiced by Avu-chan, whom people may know for being the leader of the band QUEEN BEE, who performed the opening track for Dororo and the ending track for Tokyo Ghoul:re. Away from their music, Avu-chan has done only one other voice acting role prior, having been cast as Zenon – a three-headed demon from Yuasa’s Devilman: Crybaby back in 2018. Tomona is voiced by Moriyama Mirai, who has a similar length of voice acting filmography to Avu-chan. Moriyama, known more for his dancing and acting work in Japanese live-action series and films, has previously been the voice of one other anime character, albeit it being Jesus himself from Saint Young Men. And yet, despite the fact these two voices are somewhat unknown in the world of anime compared to Kenjiro Tsuda (Jujutsu Kaisen, Way of the House Husband, Tower of God) who voices Inu-Oh’s father, everything worked superbly. I would argue that they were perfect casting choices.

However, perhaps the real genius of Inu-Oh isn’t Yuasa but is instead jazz composer Otomo Yoshihide, who is credited with making the music for the film. Having previously been in the 1990s noise band Ground Zero, which used instruments such as turntables, shamisen, koto and saxophones, I feel like Otomo really did shine during this film. Considering All the Anime was the cinematic distributor for the UK, I would be very surprised if they didn’t eventually release the soundtrack. At least, I’m hoping they do, because it was amazing. Literally, half of the film is spent telling the story via song, and Otomo’s improvisational style of music encompassing a range of genres was a perfect accompaniment to Yuasa’s famous weird and wacky storytelling.

For the uninitiated into the world of Masaaki Yuasa, you may be wondering just how weird is he. Well, I myself am quite new to the director’s filmography, but he remains incredibly well-known even within the more mainstream anime community for his works Devilman: Crybaby and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!. Alongside Eunyoung Choi, he founded Science SARU, the studio behind Inu-Oh, and Choi has gone on record to say that they explicitly “try to experiment and be creative”. Yuasa’s filmography is certainly a good example of this, and I’ve seen enough of his works by this point that I understand why people hold him in such high regard. He disregards the typical genre boundaries, he combines genres that may not be usually mixed, and whilst his works aren’t for everyone (I’m looking at you in particular, Japan Sinks) I do think he deserves a place alongside other anime greats such as Miyazaki, Kon, Hosoda and Shinkai.

But Yuasa’s goal isn’t necessarily to be the one with the wackiest ideas, as you can tell by him still including typical, somewhat cliché anime fable-like messages within his works. In Inu-Oh, some of the hidden messages surround the theme of friendship, identity, and discrimination, whereas the more prominent messages are about more thematic concepts such as time and memories. In a Crunchyroll interview from August 2022, Yuasa mentioned that:

We should be aware of the people who are surrounding us, and to be aware of what they’re doing. So that’s the main message of this movie.

Masaaki Yuasa, August 2022

In the same way that Satoshi Kon’s filmography may make you stop and think, Inu-Oh is no different. I don’t think I’ve stopped thinking about it since the credits rolled, nor do I think I will stop thinking about it for a while.

After leaving the cinema, I described the film on Twitter as being “a delightful fever dream” and that’s exactly how I’m going to keep describing it. Although it took a while to get to grips with the setting and some of the stylistic choices, which I ended up absolutely loving, I cannot recall another movie where I spent 80% of the watch time with a grin on my face due to how much I enjoyed it. Yuasa has mentioned in the past that going to the cinema is comparable to attending a concert for some people, and Inu-Oh manages to combine the two together in a cinematic event that I will encourage everyone to see at least once.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Where can I watch it?

Inu-Oh has been having a limited run at UK cinemas recently. To check cinema times, visit the film’s website here.

5 thoughts on “King of the Stage: Inu-Oh Review

  1. This movie sounds like something I’d really enjoy! I remember seeing only a bit of promotion and it was in and out of theaters (in my area of Japan) too quickly for me to catch it. I’ll have to check it out, thanks for writing about it!

  2. This is in the nominees for the 80th Golden Globe Awards ceremony. Showtime at 8 pm until 10 pm on January 10th, 2023. What will your reaction be if this wins Best Animated Feature Film or not?

    1. I think it’d be very much deserved if it does win, and I would probably be a little disappointed if it didn’t. That said, I haven’t seen any of the other nominees for the Best Animated Feature Film category, so I cannot – realistically – give a proper answer. I’m sure each nominee deserves the award in one way or another!

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