“Unity demands order” according to an ambitious politician near the end of Masaaki Yuasa’s stunning anime prog rock opera, Inu-Oh (犬王). Inspired by Hideo Furukawa’s novel Heike Monogatari Inu-Oh no Maki, Yuasa’s spirited drama is as much about the liberating power of artistic expression as it is about the danger it presents to those in power, while reclaiming the stories wilfully hidden in history or as the narrator puts it “stolen and forgotten” in order to exorcise a degree of historical trauma lingering in the cultural aura.
Set in the Muromachi period in which two imperial courts contested hegemony, the tale opens with the retrieval of a set of cursed remnants buried at the bottom of the sea after the battle of Dan-no-ura in which the Heike clan were famously defeated. Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (Tasuku Emoto) is convinced that possessing imperial treasures would lend credence to his claim, but their resurfacing creates nothing but misery leaving the boy who discovered them, Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), blind and his father dead. Setting off for Kyoto in search of revenge, Tomona is taken in by an elderly Biwa player and eventually runs into a strange creature wearing a gourd mask and behaving like a dog, striking up a friendship that later leads to the realisation that the boy is also cursed, haunted by the spirits of fallen Heike warriors desperate for their stories to be told.
In true fairytale fashion, curse later begins to dissipate as the pair exorcise the ghosts by telling their stories never singing the same song twice but always in search of new songs to be sung. Tomona changes his name several times, adopting that of “Tomoichi” in keeping with the requirements of his Biwa school and later choosing for himself that of “Tomoari” in his partnership with Inu-Oh in emphasis of the fact that “we are here”. Yet as the ghost of his father reminds him, changing his name makes him difficult to find literally losing touch with his roots in becoming invisible to friendly spirits. He and the cursed boy Inu-Oh are interested in a new kind of Biwa that is opposed by the Biwa priests for its transgressive modernity some feeling that Tomona’s transformation with his long hair and makeup brings the profession into disrepute though the act proves undeniably popular with Inu-Oh the biggest star of the age.
Having begun in the classical register with images resembling ink painting and a score inspired by traditional noh, Yuasa introduces electric guitar as the film shifts into rock opera, the pair’s stagecraft incredibly modern as they adopt all kinds of elaborate staging to add atmosphere to their tales including at one point a large lantern silhouette mimicking the big screen graphics of the present day. Yet Inu-Oh’s fame comes with a price. His popularity threatens both the pride of a jealous rival and the ambitions of the Ashikaga clan who fear his tales of the Heike are simply too bold and radical, later condemning them as an affront to the glory of the shogun and insisting that their official version must be the only record of the Heika warriors.
The sense of freedom the pair had felt in their ability to express themselves through music and dance is quickly crushed by cultural authoritarianism, Inu-Oh reduced to a kind of court jester performing only for the lord while as the closing credits tell us becoming the biggest popular star of his age though now too forgotten along with his songs while his more elegant counterpart, Fujiwaka, is remembered for shaping the art of contemporary noh though there is perhaps something in Tomona’s defiant reclaimation of his name along with the essential right to choose it for himself that grants him a greater liberty in simply refusing to allow himself to be subjugated by feudal power. A psychedelic rock opera set in 14th century Japan that remembers even noh was once new and malleable, Inu-Oh insists on art’s danger in its capacity to challenge the status quo not only directly but through a series of internal revolutions born of the masks we choose to wear and those we choose to remove in the radical act of self-expression which is in its own way the truest form of liberty.
Inu-Oh screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival
International trailer (English subtitles)