Science SARU’s Inu-Oh has been out for almost two years its official premiere in December 2021 at the Venice International Film Festival and while it was instantly acclaimed, it hasn’t been talked about nearly enough.
Perhaps because of its limited international release, in spite of its stunning animation and superb soundtrack, Inu-Oh seems to have flown under the radar. With an average score of 91% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it should really make the top of everyone’s watch list — especially anime fans.
Even when discussed, Inu-Oh is generally praised for its technical qualities — from the smooth, dynamic nature of its animation and the peculiarity of its character design to the hypnotic, unrelenting power of its rock soundtrack. However, while the technical superiority of Masaaki Yuasa’s film certainly ensures its elevation to masterpiece, it should be regarded as only one of the cogs in the machine. Indeed, it is through its beauty and revolutionary structure that the core messages of the film are conveyed, with freedom and loyalty being at the heart of Inu-Oh’s each and every scene.
Inu-Oh’s Heart Lies in Its Technical and Narrative Freedom
Inu-oh both starts out and finishes with literal storytelling, framing its tale of friendship, music and dance with a narrative device centuries old. However, between its deceptively simple beginning and end, Inu-Oh unfolds in a series of fast-paced, jarring sequences full of twists, long music scenes and stories-within-the-story. Never allowing its audience a moment of reprise, the story charges on, from character to character and skipping time and place in a constant aggression of visual and auditory stimuli.
Refusing a traditional narrative structure, after introducing Tomona, the blind biwa player and co-protagonist of the film, the story moves to Inu-Oh himself, the boy born with deformities that everyone avoids. Their meeting is fateful, their friendship instantly sparked by their shared status as outcasts and their passion for music. From there, the time of the story suddenly expands, the subsequent 20 minutes or more consisting of a concert that Tomona and Inu-Oh hold years later, establishing them as stars. Instead of playing traditional music, Tomona and Inu-Oh devote themselves to rock music — a revolutionary musical choice that is as much the director’s as it is the characters’.
The film’s rejection of traditional narrative and musical options is mirrored by the protagonist duo. Unwilling to bow to well-known tales and old-fashioned music, Tomona and Inu-Oh decide to transform Noh performances via all-out rock concerts that see them shedding their clothes, suggestively thrusting their hips, letting down their hair and, later on, even wearing make-up. As much as their detractors criticize them, Tomona and Inu-Oh’s courageous defense of their freedom of expression earns them a crowd of adoring fans.
Their ground-breaking music, dances and style go hand in hand with Tomona and Inu-Oh’s radical choice of content. Instead of adhering to the shogun’s Heike tales, they listen to the Heike warriors’ spirits and agree to tell their version of the story in a touching display of creative integrity. Freedom of expression becomes a vehicle for freedom of speech which, previously denied, is finally granted to the warriors thanks to Tomona and Inu-Oh’s bravery.
Loyalty Is Paramount in Inu-Oh’s World
Opting for a somewhat heretical version of the Heike story means picking a fight with the establishment. Loyalty to the shogun and his clan’s historical storytelling is essential for peace to be maintained, and no exceptions will be made — certainly not for a couple of radical artists. As soon as Tomona and Inu-Oh’s popularity starts to rise, the court becomes restless with unease, and the need to stop the two artists’ unconventional music that’s taking over Japan becomes more imperative with every passing day.
However, loyalty to the establishment — and the power’s reshaping of history — clashes dramatically with Tomona and Inu-Oh’s loyalty to the marginalized and their version of the past. Bending to the pressure of censorship would mean both the loss of their creative freedom, a creative truth even, and an unforgivable betrayal of the weak and forgotten, who turned to them to finally have a voice. Stubborn, Tomona and Inu-Oh fight the establishment as much as they can until, at the very end, Inu-Oh himself promises the shogun to go back to traditional storytelling, eventually yielding. It’s the end of Inu-Oh’s story.
Tomona and Inu-Oh’s Centuries-Long Friendship Is the Highest Expression of the Movie’s Themes
Or is it? In a touching final scene, the biwa player and narrator of the film is revealed as an old, tired Tomona who, for centuries, even after his death and all the way to modern Japan, has been telling Inu-Oh’s story. After hundreds of years, Inu-Oh finally finds him. Their reunion is a heartbreaking show of loyalty in friendship, with Inu-Oh allowing Tomona to return to his youthful form and the two of them dancing and playing together again.
Tomona and Inu-Oh’s loyalty to each other is as much a show of love as it is an expression of freedom. Shunned, isolated and broken when they first meet, they choose each other freely despite — and because of — their disabilities, flaws and all. Their friendship is based on a conscious decision to reject ‘normalcy,’ whatever that might have been for them. Their bond is the heart of the story and the narrative representation of the courage it takes to be loyal to one’s integrity and truth. When Inu-Oh renounces his creative freedom in a desperate attempt to save Tomona’s life, Tomona chooses for both of them — he sings their songs until the very end and is killed for it.
An ode to freedom, loyalty and creative integrity, Inu-Oh is much more than an exciting soundtrack and sleek animation. Visually mesmerizing and a tour-de-force for any viewer, Inu-Oh shines as a story of friendship between outcasts who choose their freedom — and each other – above everything else. It is no coincidence that Inu-Oh’s voice actor and one of the songwriters behind the film is Avu-Chan, an artist who refuses gender labels and is a beacon of light for freedom of expression. Inu-Oh really is a revolutionary work of art, going well beyond its undoubtedly impressive technical brilliance.