There was a musical movement in the 70s and 80s that took great pride in blurring the lines of gender expression. It was known as glam rock – and through the 80s as glam metal – and acts such as David Bowie, Queen, Kiss and Twisted Sister were known for adopting a flashy, androgynous style to their music. This style was seen as an act of rebellion, a way to distance themselves from the revolutionary rock of the 60s by ushering in a sound of decadence and silliness and a look that was a performance of gender fluidity.
This is also something we see in the 2021 anime film INU-OH. This is no surprise, since the film’s main focus is how traditions are broken and changed as society and people develop. The two main characters, Inu-Oh and Tomona, are men on a mission to tell stories about warriors outside the shogunate’s approval. They aim to break the curses of the people who came before them. In doing so, they adopt a music and performance style similar to 70s and 80s glam. We especially see the fashion for it through Tomona, who begins to wear make-up, dress in traditional feminine clothes and grow her hair out.
However, there are several ways to read this expression of gender in the film. The first connects to the roots of rock, metal and theatricality. These are traditional spaces that openly play with appearance and aesthetics, and performers usually use them as part of their performances. While certain types of music and theater are rooted in typical gender presentation to appeal to certain markets, rock and metal usually are not. These genres are about rebellion. They are all about “sticking it to the man.” In a society with very specific ideas about what a man or a woman should look like, a basic act of rebellion is not to follow those expectations, but to express yourself freely. It’s about turning away from tradition and embracing a different future.
This is what Tomona and Inu-Oh do throughout the movie. They each start out as part of a society that expects something from them. For Tomona, it is the expectation of the biwa players, who are supposed to play the stories approved by the shogunate. He is told to dress simply and keep his head shaved. For Inu-Oh, it’s the expectation of staying hidden. He is not meant to be a Noh dancer; he is not meant to be seen because of his deformities. He is always seen wearing a mask to keep his face hidden. Each of the boys is told to hide and follow the rules set for them by others. Part of their freedom from these expectations comes from the appearance they adopt. As they form their own squad, they begin to dress in a way that is more flamboyant and grand, using makeup, interesting hairstyles, and clothing from many different aesthetics. This viewpoint focuses less on gender expression as an extension of gender identity and more as an act of expression and rebellion. In this way, Tomona and Inu-Oh present as a performance, a tribute to glam culture and the spirit of revolution.
The second way of seeing gender expression in the film is linked to gender identity itself. This view is supported by the fact that the person voicing Inu-Oh in the film, Avu-chan, identifies as non-binary. Throughout the film, Tomona is portrayed as a deviant; his former teachers condemn his appearance as a “prostitute”, and those in power look at him with distaste when he transgresses the boundaries that have been set before him. Even though people find it terrifying, they still enjoy Tomona’s performances; they just disagree with his gender expression. Ultimately, this culminates in violence as the shogunate enforces the law, and Tomona still refuses to fall in line. He will not stop telling the stories of warriors lost to time, and he will not return his appearance to that of a regular biwa player. For some viewers, this is an example of how society treats gender nonconformity, as Tomona is brutalized for daring to be different by people who don’t even want to try to understand him. But it is also an example of some people’s joy when they are finally allowed to experiment with their appearance. Tomona seems far happier with her more androgynous appearance. His gender expression is deeply intertwined with his art and being, and the journey of self-discovery is something many find relatable.
Gender expression is just another unjust law to rebel against in the film. While Inu-Oh does not break this law, in keeping with a masculine presence, Tomona does, and he is punished for his rejection of societal norms. This ending, of course, connects the two interpretations of this film. Whether you see the film as a story of rebellion or a tale of gender identity, the same message is at the heart of the story’s use of gender expression. Everyone has the right to self-discovery and to be heard. All Inu-Oh and Tomona want is to tell the stories of the voiceless, and in their performance they find themselves.