***This article originally appeared in the August 22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 322)***
Based on the novel The Tale of the Heike (Heike Monogatari) translated by contemporary author Hideo Furukawa, Masaaki Yuasa’s new film Inu-Oh (Dog-King) is set in 14th century Japan. The story centers on the friendship between a dancer born with unique physical characteristics and a blind musician. The film, produced by Science SARU (the Tokyo studio founded by Yuasa and producer Eunyoung Choi), was released in Japan in May and will hit theaters on August 12 in the United States, thanks to GKIDS.
Inu-Oh is based on two pillars of traditional Japanese culture: The Tale of the Heike and Noh drama. The Tale of the Heike is an epic tale of the Genpei War, the 12th century civil war in which the Heike and Genji samurai clans fought for control of the imperial court and country. The Heike were wiped out in the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185.
Over a century later, a young boy named Tomona and his family earn their living on the shores of Dan-no-Ura by fishing and diving for relics of the battle. At the behest of a cabal of corrupt nobles, Tomona and her father bring back the sacred sword that the Sun Goddess Amaterasu Omikami gave to the Japanese Emperor’s ancestors, which was lost in battle. For committing the sacrilege of staring at the sacred blade, Tomona is blinded and her father is stricken to death. Tomona travels to Kyoto, where he grows up to be a famous musician, performing sections of The Tale of the Heikeaccompanying themselves on the biwa (Japanese lute).
14th century pop stars
The principles of Noh, an exquisitely-mannered form of drama, were also established in the early 14th century. The main character of the film is the son of the leader of the largest Noh troupe in Japan. Because her father made a deal with a demon to gain this notoriety, Inu-Oh is grotesquely deformed. His limbs are of unequal lengths and his face is so hideous that he must always wear a wooden mask. But as he learns to dance, Inu-Oh’s body transforms, taking on beautiful human proportions. He and Tomona combine forces, performing their original songs and dances, and they become 14th century pop stars.
Unlike many recent American features that rely heavily on dialogue, Yuasa uses animation itself to tell much of the story. Audiences see the deformed and restless limbs of Inu-Oh begin to move with assured grace as they transform. Traditional Noh dances require dancers to perform almost minute movements at an extremely slow pace. Yuasa and its artists shed these traditions: Inu-Oh’s dances incorporate movements drawn from classical ballet, gymnastics and break dancing.
“I thought the Noh content transmitted from that era was too narrow to describe the state of affairs at the time,” Yuasa explained in a recent email interview. “To capture the real look of the past, I took the perspective that ‘everything we can imagine today must have been thought of at least once by someone in the past’, and included various styles of contemporary dance. As the original dances were intense devotion to the gods, the dancers chose a more fundamentally dynamic form.
For the songs performed by Tomona and Inu-Oh, Yuasa worked with actor/dancer Mirai Moriyama and pop star Avu-chan, who provide the voices for the characters. “I always participate in creating the music,” Yuasa said. “In this case, we created a video with a tentative song, and then I asked the musicians to compose music to go along with it. When the actors had recorded their lines except for the vocals and had a good understanding of their characters, I asked them to write lyrics based on the tentative words. I tried to make the most of their ideas as expressive artists and adjusted the singing style to match in image and sound.
The Tale of the Heike emphasizes the Buddhist belief in the transience of all things: “The bold and the brave perish in the end: they are like dust before the wind.” Yuasa echoes these feelings when he concludes: “This film portrays weak people. They have done great things, but all is dust before the wind. I believe love and power will be remembered, but more important is empathy and understanding in the moment.
GKIDS will publish Inu-Oh in US theaters August 12. Find locations and times at inu-oh.com.