If there’s one new animated film to watch in the next year, make it Inu-Oh (but also, don’t limit yourself to one). Masaaki Yuasa has proven himself time and again to be one of the most exciting and versatile animation directors alive, as well as potentially the busiest. With his studio, Science Saru, this year alone he directed two television series—the fantastic ode to animators, Keep Your Hands off Eizouken!!, and the intense Netflix disaster series Japan Sinks: 2020—as well as the melancholy, romantic feature film Ride Your Wave.
Inu-Oh looks to be just as imaginative and wild as anything else Yuasa-san has made, based on the work-in-progress glimpse at Annecy. Set in fourteenth-century Japan, the film is based on Hideo Furukama’s novel about the legendary masked Noh theater performer Inu-Oh, born with “unique characteristics”, which lead them to cover their entire body. Both novel and film focus on their close friendship with the blind biwa hōshi (lute priest) Tomona, and the success they find together.
“We often think of history as moving in one straight line, but it actually branches off, and people and events in those branches have been forgotten or disappeared,” Yuasa-san said during the Annecy preview. Inu-Oh explores those hidden branches through an anachronistic reimagining of the roots of traditional Japanese entertainment. The main idea: what if the performers of Noh theater were treated like Japan’s pop idols of today? Yuasa-san described the main characters as “kind of like The Beatles” of 1300s Japan.
On credits alone there’s a lot of promise, with the legendary Taiyō Matsumoto— the mangaka who created Tekkonkinkreet and Ping Pong (and collaborated with Yuasa-san on the latter’s fantastic anime adaptation)—lending his eccentric yet elegant designs to the film. The preview opened with minute movements comprised of rough, wide almost painterly brushstrokes, an art style almost completely unlike anything Yuasa-san has done previously.
As it turns out, this is but one way of representing the world of Inu-Oh, through the perspective of Tomona, a Notes on Blindness-esque way of representing how Tomona perceives things. From those small glimpses, Inu-Oh looks to be a beautiful, anthropological piece built with both the same free-form style that characterizes the rest of his work, and perhaps something more classical as well.