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Heads up: I was able to watch this film via a screener sent to me from GKIDS. I received no other form of monetization other than the screener. Thank you, GKIDS for this opportunity.
When you go see a movie, what do you look for? Do you want an action-packed thrill ride? Do you want a thriller so dense with tension that you are left breathless? What about a horror film that leaves you so panicked and stressed out over the fear that lingers in your mind and the world around you as you exit the theater or turn off your TV? What about some animated visuals that live-action films can never truly fulfill? You probably want to see a film that not only stands out from the pack, but truly changes the world around you and your view on the art form itself. Not many can do so, but here we are with what might be one of the most important films of 2022, not just in animation, but in film in general. It’s a film that will make you think and redefine how films are made, and that is a good thing. We need more films shaking up the landscape and telling diverse stories and told in new and interesting ways. For now, let’s dive into the whimsical and abstract world of Inu-Oh.
This film is directed by the master himself, Masaaki Yuasa, written by Akiko Nogi, composed by Otomo Yoshihide, and animated by Science Saru. It tells the story of a blind Biwa player named Tomona, voiced by Mira Moriyama. He travels the land looking for stories to tell of the Heiki clan after their fall from the war. He was blinded after an incident brought upon by some government officials looking for a tool of power. Along his journey to becoming a biwa player, he encounters an odd entity in the form of a deformed human, who at first has no name but soon gains one via the performance name of Inu-Oh, voiced by the queen bee herself, Avu-chan. Together, they team up to tell the stories through song and dance of the spirits that were forgotten by the sands of time and the grasping hands of the rising political powers of Japan.
You know how some reviews have described this film by saying that it’s a bit of everything? Well, it is. It’s a political thriller, a murder mystery, an epic stadium rock opera, an LGBTQ+-infused friendship story, and it’s also an absurd fairy-tale-infused slice of history about an individual forgotten in time. Inu-Oh is a story about how the conquest for greed and power are willing to erase from history people that existed. It’s a dark film with a rather depressing through-line of what happens to our leads. It’s a thrilling and energy-infused musical romp where music is used to tell the honest truth of the world. It’s both big in scale, and yet personal and intimate with its characters. Any normal director would not be able to handle everything that this film throws in front of you. Inu-Oh has both complex and brutal emotions, but it’s also simple and pure, a film that has a lot of subtext and text upfront about what it’s talking about, and it feels like it should all collapse into itself like some large sinkhole opening into the earth. How the heck do you balance all of this out? In addition, instead of just being a period drama, its music, like mentioned previously in the review and a bit further into the said review, has a rock edge to its compositions and performances. It has that spark of pizzaz that would feel out of place if it was handled by anyone other than Masaaki Yuasa. However, while this film is spinning a multitude of plates and tones, what it doesn’t forget is that at the core of this film, it’s the story between Tomona and Inu-Oh. It’s a journey of their struggles and arcs in a world that is extremely unforgiving and very prone to discrimination. They could easily be forgotten individuals through the passages of time, but they push back and make sure that they and others exist. The different plot points, from the murder mystery to the political thriller aspects, are woven between beautiful music and atmospheric landscapes of the past. The characters may be straightforward, but with the allergic response people have with nuance these days, it’s for the best that the characters we do follow don’t muddy the waters. Tomona and Inu-Oh are bonded closely like brothers, and the final scene between them is extremely touching. In contrast, the overarching villains of the film are intensely despicable individuals with what they are willing to do to rise to power. The twists and turns that take you through this story will make you love our leads, laugh, smile, dance, and rock alongside the music, and just hate with a seething fury the passive villains of the film.
The animation is an experience in itself. It’s full of everything you love and adore about Science Saru with its chaotic and fluid animation. Combine the designs from character designer Obutake Ito, who did the designs for Giovanni’s Island, Lu Over the Wall, The Night is Short Walk on Girl, and Taiyo Matsumoto, who was behind the art of Tekkonkinkreet, the visual look of everything is drop-dead gorgeous. From the toned-down yet vibrant colors to the wildly expressive faces that show everyone who they really are and the flashy musical sequences, to the painted look of Tomona’s world through his blind eyes, you have an elevated visual treat that you won’t be able to compare or find in the cinematic landscape. Seriously, the musical sequences not only tell the story of the forgotten souls who couldn’t find rest, but they help paint the rise and popularity of our two leads, as well as the bitter silent anger from the main villain who finds their speaking the truth a threat to his overarching goal to unite the nations. The music itself is a collaborative effort between Otomo Yoshihide and Avu-chan. It’s full of just the best kind of rock with great story-driven lyrics, but also jam session vibes, and when they are paired with the film’s visuals, you get a special treat that beats out most of every musical this year. The voice cast is amazing. Avu-chan is incredible as Inu-Oh, and her performance is easily one of my favorites of the year. She brings a playful innocence to the early part of the character, and when the drama hits, she handles the heavier story beats well. Her scene with the soliloquy is probably my favorite scene of the entire film, and that’s saying something since her performances are the best part of the film. Mirai Moriyama also works well off of Avu-chan, and his singing is also pretty great! They really bring the heart and soul to the entire story, and the other actors do a great job with their own respective roles.
There will never be enough words to describe the experience of watching a film like Inu-Oh. It’s a fantastical experience, it’s magical, it’s a political drama, it’s a sharp-edged social commentary, it’s a bombastic stadium rock opera, it’s a grand-scale epic, it’s a small-scale emotionally-driven human story, it’s an LGBTQ+ infused journey of two souls looking to tell the stories of the forgotten, and it’s a highly-condensed cinematic experience that could only come from the mind of someone like Masaaki Yuasa. Inu-Oh is everything that he stands for, not only in filmmaking, but in storytelling, his ideals, and as a human being. Inu-Oh, just like Everything Everywhere All At Once, is a cinematic journey through the making of art on screen. It shows you what kind of creative adventures filmmakers can take you on. It’s a film that is firing on all cylinders with its visuals. It’s a film that proudly and definitely spits in the face of filmmakers and critics who talk down to the medium of animation. It viscerally stands and rebels against the naysayers and “Negative Nancies” who keep confining and limiting the medium of animation and storytelling. It’s, once again, everything everywhere all at once. If this thick slice of word loaf didn’t say so already, Inu-Oh is my favorite film of the year. It’s not only the best animated film of the year, but it’s also, bluntly, the best film of the year. You will never see something like Inu-Oh. If you can see it, please do. More people need to see the cinematic brilliance of something so distinct like Inu-Oh. It’s also a fun companion piece to Science Saru and Naoko Yamada’s adaptation of The Heike Story. We may never see a new film by Masaaki Yuasa, but for now, his story has been told, and his journey through the beauty of animation ends here. He rightfully deserves a break, and hopefully, one day, he may return to tell more stories like this one. For now, we shall journey to a fantastic world of the mystical Dragon Balls as we talk about Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero.