Thursday, July 28, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Inu-Oh

How does some heavy biwa sound to you? To the Shogun, it sounds disruptive and dangerous. He is also not very appreciative of the “new” stories from the Tales of the Heike that have made two itinerant performers a sensation in divided Muromachi-era Japan. Art and authority do not mix well in Masaaki Yuasa’s future cult-classic, Inu-Oh, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

As is often the case in Japanese history, the Heike clan lost their war with the Genji, but they got all the glory (albeit tragic glory). Supposedly, you can still hear the voices of their samurai murmuring from the river where their fleet drowned. Tomona is the kind of sensitive artist who can pick-up their whispers.

As a boy, his father died and he was blinded when the Shogun retained their diving services to retrieve a politically sensitive relic from the river. Having little conventional prospects, the now-sightless teen apprenticed to become a biwa troubadour-priest, but he rejected the traditional shaved head and monks’ robes, in favor of a rock & roll style. That appeals to Inu-Oh’s sensibilities. The frustrated actor and dancer was disowned by his father, a celebrated Noh performer, because of his physical and facial deformities. Even while bizarrely masked, Inu-Oh is a crowd-pleasing performer, especially when he teams up with Tomona. Inevitably, their popularity stirs the jealous ire of the Shogun and Inu-Oh’s arrogant father.

Tomona follows in a long line of sight-challenged Biwa players in
  films, starting with Hoichi in the classic Kwaidan and continuing with the one-eyed Kubo in Kubo and the Two Strings. Neither of them played like Tomona. Jethro Tull fans in particular should really dig the fusion of hard rock with traditional (almost pastoral) instrumentation. The musical sequences are extensive, to the point of defining the film’s character and vibe, rather than incidental or episodic. You just can’t miss Tomona wailing on his biwa, like Pete Townsend in his prime.

In fact, the spectacle of Inu-Oh and Tomona performing as 14
th Century rock gods is what the film is all about. Yuasa and screenwriter Akiko Nogi do not fully develop the subplot involving the watery spirits of the Heike. The Shogun is appropriately villainous, illustrating the evils of censorship and official pronouncements on truth—in this case canonizing which stories of Heike are acceptable and which are forbidden. The characterizations of Inu-Oh and Tomona are decent, but other GKIDS features developed deeper, richer personas.

Regardless, it is tough to beat the visuals and aural power of
Inu-Oh. Yuasa beautifully recreates feudal, pre-Edo Japan, while blasting the audience with anachronistic sounds that are still somewhat fitting. Weirdly, it is easy to see Inu-Oh paired up with Pink Floyd: The Wall (here’s a discussion topic for your movie group: compare and contrast Inu-Oh with Pink). Recommended for fans of Yuasa and films like Heavy Metal and Rock & Rule, Inu-Oh opens August 12th in theaters, after screening at this year’s Fantasia.