Inu-Oh is an intoxicating anime rock opera unlike anything seen before.
Inu-Oh (2021) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on April 6, 2023
Rating 4.5 /5
14th-century Japanese mythology and the vibrant music style of Queen don’t feel like elements that would mesh all that well. And yet they come together beautifully in Inu-Oh, a revisionist musical that throws some 1980s rock band flair upon a tale of curses, spirits, family, and performance. The combination of wild rock music and Japanese myths is so grand and gorgeous that it’s hard not to be caught up in its toe-tapping allure.
Based on the book Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh, the film centers around the friendship of Tomona and Inu-Oh. Tomona is a blind biwa player tasked with avenging his father by seeking answers from the spirits of the past and allying with a collective of other players. Inu-Oh is the cursed son of a Noh dance troupe leader. Being disfigured with a sideways face and long arms, Inu-Oh slowly discovers that the more he sings and dances, the more human he becomes. To speed up this transformation, he forms a bond with Tomona as they become a performing duo that impresses hordes of crowds. They steal the thunder from the local Noh dances by embracing more rebellious displays of singing about the stories of past spirits. It also angers the Shogun, that seeks to stop these performances.
The animation in Inu-Oh is beautifully bursting with life, from its classic imagery of depicting past events to its sketchy depictions of musical flair. It’s easy to be caught up in its surreal staging of being able to speak with spirits and the unique blind vision of Tomona. Their many performances are also so vibrant and enthusiastic that the constant chanting choir and clapping in the audience becomes infectious. They’re also very creative in how the film tries to make the many stage effects believable enough for the era. During a song about a naval campaign and a whale, a fantastic combination of lights, shadows, and water creates a compelling illusion of Inu-Oh riding a whale.
Unsurprisingly, this wild film came from director Masaaki Yuasa, known for surrealist anime films such as Mind Game and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. This one might be his more grounded work considering it mostly plays its rock opera straight. There’s a great story of a father selling out his son and a drive to see what will happen when the final song is sung. We spend enough time with the characters that it’s easy to root for Tomona and Inu-Oh to make themselves known. While the two characters have goals they must fulfill, their grander ambition is to choose their destiny while not being bound by the past. They just want to sing their hearts out and constantly stress that they are here.
The music is so good that even the English dub doesn’t attempt to match the vocals of Avu-chan as Inu-Oh and Mirai Moriyama as Tomona. Why would you anyway? The songs are so intoxicating that anybody trying to dub over them would have a monumental task. It doesn’t matter if the presence of electric guitars clashes with the biwa brandishing. There’s enough energy coursing through every concert that even the most jaded viewers will delight in the extravagance. The climax of a show amid a lunar eclipse with the lights, shadows, masks, makeup, and dancing on the water is wondrous to behold. As if all that wasn’t enough, the final concert even features the key villain exploding into bloody chunks.
Inu-Oh is an intoxicating anime rock opera unlike anything seen before. With a strong message and a mega-80s rock vibe to its Japanese story, the musical tale of two friends bonding amid spirits, curses, and cool concert effects is a must-watch anime feature. A lot of anime floats by from GKids, but don't miss this one.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.