Winner of the Satoshi Kon Award for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Masaaki Yuasa’s film has almost instantly achieved a cult following. Drawing on stories told about a real historical figure, it addresses key developments in early Noh theater and explores why some artists risk everything to tell banned stories in the face of aggressive government censorship. She is cleverly animated, intelligent and full of passion. Unfortunately, its mix of repetitive Noh musical style with modern metal riffs, while seeming to please some viewers, will leave others wanting to scream for all the wrong reasons.
People yell at Inu-ô (voiced by Queen Bee singer Avu-Chan) when they see his face. He has no name for them, born deformed, thrown out to be raised by dogs, hiding his head inside a gourd from which his eyes look at the wrong angles. With scales and fur and an abnormally long arm, all fairly common yokai traits, he seems to be cursed (a common assumption about disabled people in that historical period), but it takes him many years to figure out why, and to do so he needs help, something that has not been easy to obtain. It arrives, eventually, in the form of Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), a blind biwa-playing young man who befriends him and helps him develop a theatrical and musical show that will allow them both to pursue their ambitions and right some of the wrongs. from the past
There’s a lot going on here as the film tackles the harsh political climate of the time, and while paying tribute to those who resist censorship, it also explores the issues around which stories survive, the importance of selling them successfully to a jaded public and the political risks involved in trying to restrict the flow of ideas, which has often been blamed for stalling cultural development at a vital point in Japan’s history, leaving it at a disadvantage compared to other nations. It also builds on the common theme in Noh of a deformed character becoming more conventionally human as he atones for past sins (which he may have committed in a past life, or may have been committed by his ancestors) or breaks free. of a curse: a way of thinking that has helped to perpetuate negative ideas about people with disabilities.
The use of masks is central to Noh, and viewers familiar with the art will expect a big reveal at the end, when the unmasking traditionally occurs, but Inu-ô’s gradual transformation means we can’t be sure what we’ll see if or if. when this happens, and Masaaki’s film also has another ace up its sleeve when it comes to this. While the film borrows from traditional Noh structure and even has elements of an oni monkey, it retains a degree of freedom, playing with form and moving beyond it in a way that mimics his character’s artistic breaking of boundaries. central. This allows Masaaki to step back from time to time and see everything in a larger context, as well as interweave elements early on that may seem like they belong in separate adventures but eventually make sense as parts of the whole.
Inu-ô’s success is due only in part to the righteousness of his cause, and has more to do with his superb stagecraft. Masaaki has diligently recreated the Noh settings of the time, but goes beyond them as we see Inu-ô use the structures of a variety of public spaces to present her unique works. The technology of the time is impressively applied, and aside from Inu-ô’s curious body (aspects of which one might think he wouldn’t want to lose), everything seems to obey the laws of physics. This demonstrates Inu-ô’s craft and makes the movie much more interesting than another story where the protagonist only stands out due to his supernatural powers. While the supernatural has a place here, it operates within strict limitations: what we get is something very grounded in reality as contemporary audiences would have understood it.
Adding to the impression created by these scenes are Masaaki’s wonderfully detailed depictions of crowds. While they never distract from the main events, if you pay attention you’ll see all sorts of things happening within them. They feel as if they are collections of real individuals, and this contributes to what the film has to say about popularity, power, and why rulers can be intimidated by the arts.
There’s a lot to admire here, and clearly some viewers have fallen in love with the soundtrack as well. Be careful though: if you don’t, despite all your art, this can be an excruciating experience.
Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2022