In 1185, the Genji defeated the Heike in the sea battle of Dan-no-ura.  Two hundred years later during Japan’s Muromachi period, legends abound about the spirits of the thousand defeated warriors and young Tomona is blinded and his father (voice of Yutaka Matsushige) killed recovering cursed sunken imperial regalia.  Tomona will be mentored by a blind biwa priest and enter their guild as Tomoichi (voice of Mirai Moriyama).  When he travels to the capital he will meet another outsider, the cursed and deformed Inu-oh (voice of Avu-chan, lead vocalist of Queen Bee) who covers his hideous face with a gourd mask yet astounds with his dancing to Tomoichi’s biwa playing.  Inspired by the Heike spirits, Tomoichi creates controversial music that, in turn, creates a Noh superstar out of “Inu-oh.”

Laura's Review: B+

This is an incredible true story, but as adapted (from Hideo Furukawa's 'The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-oh Chapters') by Akiko Nogi and directed by Masaaki Yuasa ("The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl") it has become a fusion of period piece, fantasy and modern day rock opera with themes of artistic political rebellion versus mandated conformity.  This vibrant animation features historical scenes rendered as old watercolor paintings come to life, but Taiyo Matsumoto (character creation) and Nobutake Ito (character design) have taken great pains to make its 14th century characters unique, Tomoichi morphing from lowly biwa playing peasant to long haired, makeup wearing rock god while Inu-oh’s suggestive mask and deformed body evolves into something beautiful as his father’s (voice of Kenjiro Tsuda) complicity in his curse is exposed.  The shogun who affects their fate, Lord Yoshimitsu Ashikaga (voice of Tasuku Emoto), is the smooth-faced ruler they defy.

The film is full of magical elements, from that opening deadly sword brought up from the sea to the purple swirling eye mask which makes a Faustian bargain with Inu-oh’s father.   Tomona’s name changes make it impossible for spirits to find him, an obstacle for both his father and, later, Inu-oh himself.  But it is the spirit of the Heike warriors, represented by red crabs and pulsing pinkish red orbs, which inspire the musical duo to tell tales higher ups do not wish to hear.  The filmmakers present their shows as something modern yet accomplishable in their time, pyrotechnics, for example, supplied by a fire breather, a giant fabric screen erected for the projection of a giant whale.  Inu-oh’s first performance, touted by an earlier Tomoichi performance noting its location, visualizes the lopping off of the arms of the warriors clinging to an enemy vessel with straw limbs ‘animated’ by their spirits.

Once it is decreed that only the ‘old’ stories are acceptable, one of these men tries to protect the other who is determined to keep his original voice, yet despite the story’s tragic turn, Nogi and Yuasa find a hopeful conclusion.  “Inu-oh,” with its finely tuned character detail, artistic animated movement and unique storytelling is an explosive work of originality.

Robin's Review: B-

GKIDS releases "Inu-Oh" in theaters on 8/12/22.