I’ve only seen two anime films in theaters so far this year, but it still feels significant that both were pop musicals. Both also happen to feature whale-themed light shows in their stadium concert fantasy sequences, as if they were both anime adaptations of The Decemberists performing “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”. However, whereas Mamoru Hosoda’s Belle was set in an online cotton candy future-world, Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh dials the clock back to an earthtones watercolor illustration of feudal Japan. Despite the centuries’ distance between their settings, Belle explores the merits & limitations of seeking community online, while Inu-Oh does the same for rock n’ roll fame, which can only elevate the marginalized so high before the fascists at the top take notice & shut them down. I greatly appreciate both films as psychedelic experiments with the outer limits of animation. I’m surprised that Inu-Oh was my favorite of the pair, though, since my tastes lean more to the ultra-modern, ultra-femme cyber-realms of Belle.
Like all the best rock operas, Inu-Oh is specifically a glam rock opera, joining the likes of Rocky Horror, Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig, and Lisztomania at the pinnacle of the art form. Despite anchoring itself to the historical specifics of “biwa priests” providing musical entertainment for the emperors of 14th Century Japan, its story is easily relatable to anyone who’s familiar with rise-to-fame rock n’ roll myths – especially ones that involve crossdressing, glitter, and platform boots. The biwas are electric guitars; the emperors are record execs; the shadow-puppet lightshows are proto-pyrotechnics; it’s all accessible & familiar. Inu-Oh details the friendship & artistic collaboration between a rebel biwa priest (lead guitarist) and a freakish mutant (rock n’ roll frontman) he meets in his travels. The biwa player is blind and perpetually mourning the childhood loss of his father. His singing, dancing partner is a bizarre collection of physical abnormalities, an “ugly monster” covered in scales, with eyes, mouth, and limbs drifting to unlikely locations. Through rock n’ roll, they not only find fame & respect they’ve never been afforded as ordinary citizens, but they also find the freedom to be their true selves in public for the very first time – testing the boundaries of their gender identity, political convictions, and sexual desirability in full public display. And then, as always, The Man gets in their way.
Comparing Inu-Oh against Belle is likely a cheap shot, since anime is more of a broad artistic medium than a niche, rigid subgenre. If anything, it more closely resembles the other cyberpunk movie musical I saw in theaters this year: Neptune Frost. Both Inu-Oh & Neptune Frost use the propulsive, euphoric power of music to echo the momentum & rhythms of political resistance. They’re both celebratory of the political power the disenfranchised can find in communal solidary, while also appropriately grim in detailing how futile that power can feel in the face of systemic fascism. In particular, Inu-Oh often plays like a love letter to provocative, gender-ambiguous rock legends like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Prince, threading them into a larger continuum of artists who challenge the political status quo. At the same time, it reckons with the reality that a lot of similar artists on the fringe never achieve that level of fame or cultural respect; a lot of queer activists’ voices are violently snuffed out before they can be heard. For their heart and their anger, Inu-Oh & Neptune Frost are the most politically energizing movies I’ve seen all year; they’re also the very best.
That’s not to say that Inu-Oh‘s medium isn’t a major part of its appeal. Anime often feels like the last remaining refuge of traditional, complex animation in a world where that visual artistry is being lost to cutesy, over-simplified computer graphics. Yuasa is highly respected in that field as one of the best of the best, thanks to psychedelic free-for-alls like Mind Game & Night is Short, Walk On Girl. Inu-Oh matches the euphoric transcendence of its rock n’ roll music with the expressive imagination of its visual style. When viewing the world though a blind character’s mind, we navigate a white void where sounds trigger impressions of color. We travel backwards through the centuries in still-photo montages of devolving landscapes. We don’t see swordfights; we see the slash of the weapon and the steam rising from the blood. This is a gorgeous, invigorating, heartbreaking work about the bliss, power, and turmoil of rock n’ roll outsiders. Speaking personally, it’s the best genderfucked feudal Japan glam rock opera anime I’ve ever seen, but your mileage may vary.