The works of Masaaki Yuasa, clockwise from top left: The Tatami Galaxy; Mind games; Inu-Oh; Devilman Crybaby; Lie over the wall; The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl; and Ping Pong: The Animation.
Video: Photo-Illustration: Vulture
There is an animated rock concert early on Inu-Ohthe latest film from Masaaki Yuasa, which opens with a long-haired blind man standing on a bridge, dressed in traditional Japanese costume and shredding on his biwa lute. As he spins through the crowd, playing and singing, a banner falls from the bridge onto the dry river bed below. It shows the name 犬王 (“Inu-Oh”) in dramatic kanji letters that introduce his partner: a twisted, dancing man in a demon mask leaping high into the air from beneath a wooden stage set up along the river bed. Upon landing, he swings his hips, swings his body around, and sings a story about being born different: his eyes and mouth were switched at birth, and his preternaturally long right arm stretches to more than three times the length of his left. . Separately, the two men are adrift and broken, but together they are utterly fascinating
This is the unlikely duo’s first major appearance together in Inu-Oh, a blend of anime concert film and historical epic that infuses traditional Noh theater with an ever-increasing rock-and-roll energy. After its Japanese debut in May, the film saw a limited theatrical release in North America in August, but went largely unnoticed outside anime and arthouse circles until it received a Golden Globe nomination last week, an unusual accolade for an anime film. Now that Inu-Oh gets its North American home release (arriving on digital platforms today and Blu-ray in January), more viewers can finally see what makes it such a spectacle. Between the exaggerated, anachronistic character animations and the way the extravagant set pieces are edited together, Inu-Oh feels unlike anything you’ve seen on screen – unless you have a Yuasa movie before.
Many of the mainstream anime films of the past decade have some traits in common: sweeping romance, a high-school-age protagonist, Studio Ghibli-inspired depictions of nature, and references to cultural practices rooted in Shintoism and Japanese history. And of course the plot Inu-Oh is not unusual for an anime: Tomona, the blind musician, and Inu-Oh, the masked dancer, find success and navigate adversity while performing songs that inspire the masses and frustrate the powerful establishment of 14th-century Japan. Few other national cinemas are as singularly connected to a particular place as anime despite it now being a global art form.
Inu-Oh enchants his audience through dance and storytelling in the film’s first major performance.
But animation has often, as with all cinema, crossed international borders for inspiration. Since popular programs such as Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion and ambitious films such as Akira and Princess Mononoke broke through to the West at the end of the 20th century – preceded by 60s classics that Astro boy and Speed Racer, which received smaller pockets of global viewership — anime has become a major influence on American animation. Critically acclaimed American TV series such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and Steven Universe owes a lot to the creators’ childhood love of Japanese animation, the latter of which contains many subtle and not-so-subtle references to the sword-wielding hero of Revolutionary girl Utena. Even films as popular and mainstream as Pixar’s reference anime regularly; one of the tongue-in-cheek potential titles for Turns red our My neighbor Toronto.
But this has never been a one-way relationship. Creators of Japanese animation have always looked back at the West. One of the freshest and most popular voices working in anime, Yuasa borrows from endless pockets of animation history to create a style all his own. Instead of only drawing from the incredible anime directors who came before him, Yuasa has explicitly called upon a diverse range of works as he refines his style. His 2004 film, Mind gamesused a patchwork mix of CGI, sketchy 2-D, and other unusual techniques to convey action—much like how animator George Dunning wove colorful, surreal environments to accompany the Beatles’ music for Yellow submarine. Dance sequences are also a Yuasa favorite, whether lively and active or carefully considered. A memorable sequence in his 2017 film Night is Short, Walk on Girl stages characters who spontaneously break out into an elaborate, slow-motion dance. Their movements are playfully disturbing, reminiscent of the stop-motion creations of Russian animator Ladislas Starevich, who attached wires to insect limbs in the early 1900s to create his demanding, bug-filled animated films.
Yuasa’s clearest influences are early American animation and the edgy, distinctive styles of Tex Avery and the Fleischer brothers. He directly takes elements of their visual approach, using bizarre transformations and exaggeration to make his set pieces appear in sequences such as the strangely intense table tennis matches in Ping Pong: The Animation and the kinky wrestling scenes in Kick-Heart. His work calls back to the Averys Little Red Riding Hood and its wolf, who could explosively change his body and mercilessly hammer his head in lust. It also draws from the surrealism of the Fleischer brothers’ classic Out of the inkwell comics, which regularly played with the scale and dimensions of their characters, even placing them on top of live-action environments, an early demonstration of the innovation and plasticity the medium could convey. In some ways, this is history repeating itself – Astro boy creator and “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka admired Walt Disney’s visual style and ethos, and many of Studio Ghibli’s films draw from European texts – but the specific pulse and infectious energy Yuasa brings to the mix, with its playful cultural hybridity, is undeniable fresh.
You can see some hints of Yuasa’s style as we now know it in his early television contributions The choppy end and Crayon Shin-chanbut Mind games, his feature film debut, pointed to his trademark quirkiness. Moving at a mile a minute, the film feels like a visual representation of improvised jazz, shifting tone and style so quickly you can barely process it, but deftly enough that it feels coherent. In one scene, the characters move to an unpredictable piano piece — first underwater while riding sea monsters, then on an endless dance floor as they move to the beat as precisely as the dots bounce in Scottish-Canadian animator Norman McLaren’s experimental piece “Dots.” The frame divides itself once, then twice, as the scene climaxes, the characters’ faces brimming with energy mere inches from the semblance of the camera as it spins up, down and around their contorted bodies, this chaos echoing the psychedelic animations of the 1970s such as Pink Floyd’s The wall and even has a hint of older Dr. Seuss cartoons like Halloween is Grinch Night. But the film never strays far from its anime roots, often using visual standbys like characters frozen in terror or vibrating through a backdrop to signify manic movement.
If there’s one animated sequence that fully captures the exuberant Yuasa at work, it’s the dance sequence in his 2017 feature film Lie over the wall. Focuses on a misanthropic teenager whose enthusiasm for life is re-energized by his ningyo (a kind of Japanese mermaid creature) friend, Lu, and her love of music, the film reaches its climax in a scene on the beach where Lu’s rhythm is so infectious that all residents of the town are forced to dance all day. Moving the “camera” from the static faces of the characters to the exaggerated wiggles of their feet, Yuasa bends the rules of what anime should look like before breaking from them entirely with sequences that feel like they were ripped straight from experimental, noodle-y , rotoscoped 1930 Fleischer cartoons that Minnie the Moocher. Bodies grow and shrink at the director’s whim, some were even forced to break into the “Thriller” dance, and when Lu breaks it down with a big, childish grin on her face, it’s hard not to watch and grin back.
Inu-Oh‘s Tomona, channel the energy of Jimi Hendrix with a biwa.
Yuasa’s appearance sequences in Inu-Oh are some of the purest distillations yet of that vibrant, masterful filmmaking. Tomona wields the lute like Hendrix, playing behind her head and sending the audience wild, while Inu-Oh waves his extended right arm around, his proportions reminiscent of an inverted version of R. Crumb’s “Keep on Truckin'” characters. The duo’s rise to fame mirrors Yuasa’s own, from becoming an art house animation favorite in the early aughts to catching the eye of Netflix executives in the late 2010s and finding continued critical praise for Inu-Oh. Their masterful playing and unorthodox dancing work as effectively in tandem as Yuasa’s seemingly disparate artistic references, combining national tradition with transnational creativity just as the director’s own globally inspired film collages do.
Out today on digital platforms. Available for pre-order on Blu-ray and DVD (out January 23rd).