Rock of Sages – Inu-Oh

I’ve been sitting on this review for a few days, trying to figure out the best time to write it, and today presented the perfect opportunity. As I mentioned in this month’s edition of TFINYW, August can be something of a secondary dumping ground for the studios, unloading all the bad movies they think they’ve got left before Awards Season starts proper. And since I’m officially an old man now, what better time to bring out a new critique when it appears that I’ve been proven right on at least one front?

You see, Beast came out this weekend, heavily marketed for months, and it basically flopped. It brought in $11 million, which was second place this week, losing out to Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, which earned $20 million. That’s right, the marquee film of the week lost – by a nearly 2:1 margin – to anime. As for the rest of the Top 5 this week, it barely beat out Bullet Train, now in its third weekend, Top Gun: Maverick, which continues its steady climb up the all-time rankings, and DC League of Super-Pets in its fourth week.

Now, most of the time, I don’t really care about box office, as it’s not a true indicator of quality, merely of audience preference. That said, it makes me laugh when something so obviously derivative and lousy gets overhyped by the studios to be something well more than it actually is, only for the movie-going crowds to reject it outright, displaying a hopeful modicum of critical thought. Universal wasted tens of millions on what is little more than a remake of The Ghost and the Darkness, and the populace said, “Fuck you!” and watched Dragon Ball instead.

And to be clear, I’m not bashing DBZ or any of its spinoffs. In fact, even though I never got into the series (there’s over 25 years’ worth of TV and film content to sift through at this point), it is heartening to see how much anime is starting to gain a true foothold here in the States. Film spinoffs of Dragon Ball, My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, and Sword Art Online are doing gangbusters domestically, opening the door for more artsy, independent anime fare to get in front of more mainstream audiences, and I am here for it!

It is in that spirit that I can finally review Inu-Oh, the latest from visionary animator Masaaki Yuasa, who we last heard from a few years ago with the enchanting Lu Over the Wall. Like that previous outing, Yuasa combines stunning visuals with innovative musical choices to tell a compelling story. But going further than his last effort, he distills his narrative into a timeless and profound epic about speaking truth to power through pure, unbridled rock!

Set in the 14th century, the film begins as a mystical tale of two warring shoguns who wish to possess a magical regalia as proof of their claim to an imperial throne. It is there that Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), the son of a fisherman (his name literally means “fried fish”), is met with his destiny. When his father (Yutaka Matsushige) retrieves a sword, part of said regalia, it kills him and blinds the young Tomona. On a quest to find the imperial guards responsible for this ill-fated mission, he falls in with a group of blind monks who all play the biwa (a stringed instrument similar to a lute or shamisen), and learns to tell histories through traditional folk music.

Meanwhile, a Noh dancer (classical Japanese interpretive dance) seeks to be the best in the land and win the favor of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Tasuku Emoto). Consumed by ambition and blinded by greed, the dancer (voiced by Kenjiro Tsuda) makes a Faustian bargain with an enchanted mask, also part of the imperial regalia. He is given limitless talent and ability, but is cursed with the birth of a hideously deformed son. He treats the boy like a dog, keeping him from the eyes of the public and forcing him to wear a mask made from a hollowed out gourd. However, the boy also possesses dancing skill, and one day, while imitating his father and brothers, his legs are transformed into normal ones. He still has a face that he must hide from the world, his right arm is double-length while his left one barely protrudes from his head, and his back is covered in scales. But for the first time in his life, he is free, able to leave his home and explore the wider world, even though his appearance frightens the locals.

It is in this form – which he comically dubs, “The Gourd” – that he meets Tomona, now going by Tomoichi, as everyone in his monastery has adopted the last character of their mentor’s name. The two develop an instant rapport through their love of music and their inability to be intimidated by the other. The young man (now voiced by Japanese singer Avu-chan) renames himself Inu-Oh, the “Dog King” (not to be confused with the same character from The Deer King), and the two begin a friendship.

Had that been the entire movie, I’d say this was completely pleasant and adequate. Yuasa continues his expert use of elongated, lanky character designs, a nice lesson is learned about not judging people by appearances, and there’s a cool trick with the visuals when it comes to Tomona’s blindness. He can still make out rough shapes without focus, and because he was blinded by a mystical weapon, he can see and commune with spirits, including his late father. He can also perceive the spirits of Heike warriors who died in battle three centuries previous, when the imperial regalia was first lost. He surmises that these spirits are the ones who restored Inu-Oh’s mobility, sort of like the forest spirits from Princess Mononoke.

If Yuasa had stopped there, I’m sure this would have been perfectly enjoyable. But Yuasa-san is not one to rest on his laurels. The breadth of his creativity simply won’t allow it. As such, all this goodness is just the setup for something truly epic. In a blending of ancient folk music and modern rock and roll, Tomona forms his own troupe, decked out in the feudal equivalent of stadium rock threads and turns Inu-Oh into a stage show, essentially becoming the world’s first heavy metal band. Standing on a bridge, he lures the public in by presenting a more gritty, growling interpretation of the previous war’s history, aided by the spirits of the Heike warriors who never got a chance to tell their own stories. With a deep, grungy passion, his biwa takes on the timbre of a tuned-down minor-key guitar, as his lyrics prepare the viewer for a spectacle unlike anything they’ve ever seen, all while Inu-Oh waits below, ready to emerge and act out the truth as it was experienced by the dead.

Each performance is an absolutely jaw-dropping affair. The sheer imagination behind each element is off the charts amazing, particularly the way Yuasa creates an infrastructure which presents a logistical plausibility to the showmanship, as cloths, candles, pulleys, and reeds are all engineered in a manner that could conceivably create the arena-like designs with the presently-available technology of the 1380s. This results in a truly dazzling display of light and color not seen in recent memory.

But this is all just glorious window dressing for Inu-Oh’s performance. “How will it end?” Tomona teases with each song’s prelude, and it’s a legitimate question. But like Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, he don’t need no instructions to know how to rock. Inu-Oh physically embodies the music as it surrounds him, turning him into a medieval Japanese David Bowie, enchanting the audience both in front of him and those watching on the screen. Influences of Black Sabbath, Queen, The Beatles, and Electric Light Orchestra (just to name a few) permeate the proceedings, creating an entirely new outlet for storytelling and pure entertainment, all while delivering Inu-Oh’s personal salvation through literally transformative staging.

The genre itself serves as a metaphor for authoritative forces who wish to control narratives strictly on their own terms. While Tomona (now called Tomoari after forming the troupe) and Inu-Oh have legions of instant fans, they also have detractors. Some of them are benign, like random passersby who denigrate Tomona for having long hair (his biwa monastery all go bald). Others, like the shogun himself, seek to stifle the act’s rebellious nature and silence any dissent if it challenges his legitimacy as a living deity. There are elements of this story based on real Japanese history, but even if you don’t recognize them, American audiences can certainly see the parallels to our own modern society, where certain politicians insist that their version of events – be they ones created by themselves or simply the most palatable ones for their ambitions – be the only one that counts, even if it’s outright contradicted by objective fact. In an odd way, it’s comforting to know that some of the problems we have today have been around for more than a millennium. In another way, it’s really sad that we still haven’t gotten our collective shit together. Either way, Yuasa presents the issue in a way few, if any, could pull off.

There are a couple of moments here and there that drag, and you’d be forgiven if you felt a little lost with the heavy historical exposition that opens the film. But honestly, by the time Inu-Oh takes center stage, absolutely none of it matters. And by the time it’s all over, I was honestly surprised with the skillful resolutions to the various dangling plot threads Yuasa left hanging from the first act. Is it the cleanest story structure? No. But at the same time, it kind of feels like that’s the point. Art is messy sometimes, and when it is, you have to judge intent rather than execution in some aspects. It’s far from exact, more a subjective feeling you have from time to time. For me, part of the charm was how willing Yuasa was to go outside the lines for the sake of the mesmerizing effect of this middle ages rock opera, the more jagged edges only adding to the believability of the underlying conceit.

It’s not perfect, but for what it’s trying to do, I can’t think of a way that it could have been done better. This is a side of anime that’s being taken to new, weird, exciting levels, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Whereas Hayao Miyazaki laid the groundwork for visual storytelling, one that has been enhanced and innovated by the likes of Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, Masaaki Yuasa has instead focused on how sound and music can stretch the boundaries of this medium. And to that I pull out my lighter and say, “Encore!”

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What directions would you like to see anime go in? Were you mouthing “We Will Rock You” during the second number like I was? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Rock of Sages – Inu-Oh

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