Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Screenplay: Akiko Nogi
Based on the novel by: Hideo Furukawa
Producers: Eunyoung Choi, Fumie Takeuchi, Akiko Yodo
Starring: Avu-Chan, Mirai Moriyama, Tasuku Emoto
Year: 2021
Country: Japan
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 98 mins

I’ve followed the work of Masaaki Yuasa since his unique film debut Mind Game and I’ve always been impressed by both his ambitious visual flair and his ability to turn complex, absurd stories into palatable, engaging experiences. Mind Game begins as a romance before becoming a violent crime film, passing through limbo and ending up inside a whale. Night is Short, Walk On Girl is a Rom-Com infused with diversions about Gods and underpants. Lu Over the Wall is a psychedelic mermaid tale that brought Yuasa’s vibrant style to a family audience. Even the slightly more restrained examination of grief and loss in Ride Your Wave comes by way of a strange, supernatural wrinkle about a dead man’s spirit appearing in water. Yuasa’s work, then, has never been short on ambition and invention, and Inu-Oh, a 14th century Rock Opera about a blind musician and an intermittently shapeshifting outcast, is no exception. But for the first time in his fascinating career, I felt that Yuasa dropped the ball on the storytelling front.

Inu-Oh is as exceptionally beautiful to look at as any of Yuasa’s films. His style is never predictable and always interesting and such levels of innovation can sometimes be enough to carry a film alone, especially when it comes to the oft underrated visual artistry of the animated medium. I often differentiate between people who say they love animated films and people who say they love animation. Those who have an appreciation of the painstaking complexity and intricate detail of the medium itself often watch animated films in an entirely different way from those who just love the fact that animation removes certain narrative obstacles and allows easier access to cute talking animals. Films such as Wan Laiming’s The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven or György Kovásznai’s Foam Bath place secondary importance on story in favour of pushing the boundaries of animation and do so in riveting fashion. Films like Marcell Jankovics’ Son of the White Mare or Dash Shaw’s My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea manage to find a perfect balance between visual audacity and strong storytelling. But Inu-Oh’s striking artwork is sadly not enough to compensate for a story that is initially confusingly told and then seems to disappear completely.

Inu-Oh’s eventual move away from a narrative is undoubtedly a stylistic choice rather than an error on the director’s part. As its characters become anachronistic Rock stars in 14th century Japan, the aesthetic becomes that of a stadium concert, their performances accompanied by rapturous crowds and inventive lighting effects. The atmosphere is captured very well and the animation, especially Inu-Oh’s performance involving his awkwardly extended arm, is terrific. This approach could’ve absolutely captivated me had it been paired with more interesting music. Unfortunately, the songs are a stomping, repetitive variation on 80s Hair Metal and, while it works well to begin with, the songs are so unnecessarily long and virtually identical that as more time passes you get the impression you’ve been watching the same song for the entire time. There are moments of reused animation that further exacerbate this repetitious descent into tedium. It’s fair to say that if you like the music, Inu-Oh’s party atmosphere might be enough. But as I listened to those same riffs pounding away again and again, I slowly lost hope that the plot, itself already somewhat unsatisfactory, was ever coming back in any significant way.

I think I would’ve preferred Inu-Oh if it had opted to eschew plot altogether, rather than largely abandon it in its second act. But for it to work for me I’d need a greater variation in the music to keep me interested. Even with these spectacular visuals, the monotony of the accompaniment ground me down. Still, Yuasa has made a film that, while it disappointed me from an entertainment point of view, did not compromise his status as a relentlessly interesting artist. There have been whispers that Inu-Oh could be Yuasa’s final work. If this turns out not to be the case, I’m still as excited by the prospect of what he might do next as I would be if I’d loved this. Sometimes a boldly launched arrow that misses the target completely is more inspiring than one fired with a reliable but unambitious intent to land somewhere mid-board. Yuasa’s arrows have always been fired with such invigorating abandon that one was bound to miss my target eventually but the archer himself remains a source of great interest.

Inu-Oh is released by Anime Ltd. on DVD, Blu-Ray and exclusive Blu-Ray and DVD Collector’s Edition on 7 August 2023.

The Collector’s Edition includes:
* A bespoke rigid case featuring artwork from the film
* A 40-page artbook featuring character artwork and production materials.
* An A3 replica of the UK theatrical poster.
* A replica “shikishi” art card
* 3x art cards featuring key artwork for the film.

The on-disc extras for the Collector’s Edition, as well as the Standard Edition Blu-ray release are:
* INU-OH interview with Masaaki Yuasa
* Career Interview with Masaaki Yuasa
* Intermission “Inu-Oh and Tomoichi”
* Cast Interview
* Trailer

2.5Overall Score
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