Whatever you may initially think you’re getting going into with Inu-Oh, the latest film from acclaimed director Masaaki Yuasa, you’ll have to think quite a bit bigger. In terms of time, scope, and tone, it morphs into a vibrant work that feels like it just keeps expanding the more you get to sit with it. Ambitious yet focused, it is a film that draws from both history and fantasy that it then shapes via joyous music. The result is an epic that makes the most of its magic, eschewing the regrettably typical constraints of the form to become something that is both deeply reflective and beautifully realized. While often messy in how chaotic it can become, it is an experience that embraces its excesses and holds close to the melancholy that is woven underneath it all. It is a work of glorious imperfections you wouldn’t have any other way as this is what instills the story with a vivacious personality all its own.
Set in the politically tumultuous 14th century Japan, it first introduces us to the young Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) and his early life. It seems peaceful and free, though that is not to last. Following a dive for a mysterious artifact that ends in the sudden death of his father while leaving Tomona blind, he will set out on the road for the next several years of his life. This makes up the beginning of the film though is only just the tip of the thematic iceberg. As the story jumps through time, often punctuated by striking animated sequences where many years pass in the blink of an eye, the past is put in conversation with the present. It sets the stage for what will be the breaking open of this underlying theme that is shouted via song. While it may take a while to fully arrive at what will be its main focus, from the moment it gets there onward it all keeps you locked in. This is first felt when Tomona stumbles upon the titular Inu-Oh, an outcast who wears a gourd as a mask and has his own unique body structure. Voiced with vigor and occasional venom by Avu-chan of the rock band Queen Bee, no one else seems to care to understand anything about him. That is, except for Tomona.
The friendship between the two begins to form, one that is both musical and emotional, and serves as the beating heart of the film. While Inu-Oh has been demonized over his physical appearance, defined by a long arm and distinct face that stem from mysterious complications during his birth, he soon finds that performing is a transformative experience. This is felt in how the music they make and the stories they tell with it have the power to tap into something far bigger than both of them. It soon seems to cast a spell over the many audiences they perform for in explosive and entertaining sequences that blow the roof off the story. While it can be more than a bit jarring to see the film shift into being basically one ballad after another with performances that get more and more elaborate, the magic of the music soon sweeps you up along with it. Even as there are certainly moments where you wish you could get more character scenes, it also becomes clear that the performance is intertwined with the development of both friends. It is how they express themselves and shout out against the respective pain each has had to endure, cathartic in the most splendid way possible.
The way all these extended performances are animated and scored is nothing short of electrifying. Seeing Inu-Oh spin and leap through the air as the music rises in intensity is almost like he is rapidly taking flight, unhindered by the silly rules of gravity. It all is as rhythmic as it is riveting, becoming rather mesmerizing as it pushes to new heights of performance. These concerts are spectacles, capable of frightening those in power who will soon seek to control the duo. However, there are also plenty of quieter moments of ethereal animation that feel enduringly dreamlike in how they flow through time and space. Be it in a fleeting moment when Tomona shares a meal alone as it rains or the way the same setting fades through time, all of it takes on an unshakably serene quality.
While there are plenty of moments of near horror that make use of bloody viscera and sudden violence, it all comes together to create something magnificent. Each subsequent scene complements the prior, building in energy and excitement that is mirrored in the increasingly intricate animations. When the film reaches the climactic final performance the two friends get to share together is where it really lets loose and goes wild. There is a light show, flashes back through time, and acrobatics galore. It is the perfect melding of sound and sight, expertly capturing all the power they have been able to build through the mastery of their craft. It is unrestrained in the best way possible, making the inevitable collision as the looming crisis of the present comes crashing down all the more devastating to witness.
While everything had been tinged with the tragedy of the past, the crushing conclusion is more than a bit painful. It is the type of finale that lingers with you as all the joy and wonder that preceded it is almost entirely smothered into nothingness. This was always foretold though not in a way we could fully understand until the last few shots reflect the opening ones. All the dreamlike beauty of the performances is nearly forgotten as the film takes a turn to become a nightmare. While this all can feel soul-crushingly dour, it ends up serving as a rallying cry about the importance of clinging to the vibrancy of art and friendship as the world crumbles around us. The power that holds to transform and shape the world will transcend time beyond the terrors of the present. This is felt in the ending final shot, a kaleidoscopic echo of a prior one that takes us into the cosmos for one last moment of beauty. In getting to see this all come together, Inu-Oh has managed to make something that finds glory amidst the grim reality. It is a lovely encore that caps off quite a show, both for Yuasa and his characters.