Inu-oh is an animated rock opera that takes place in 14th century Japan, and I wish the movie was as cool as that sounds. In fairness, maybe other people will like it more than I did. This is one of those fundamentally odd pictures that is either totally your thing, or not your thing at all. Probably not a whole lot of in-between there. Despite being great to look at, I found the story – which is really more of a thin scenario than a three-act structure – ponderous.
In director Masaaki Yuasa's film, Inu-oh is a deformed person with one arm that's about five times the length of the other and eyes that are vertical rather than right next to each other. He wears a mask to hide his appearance. By chance, Inu-oh meets Tomona, a blind musician. When Tomona plays his stringed instrument, something happens – Inu-oh uncontrollably dances. Not just any dances, either. Wild dances of elation, as if Michael Jackson had somehow inhabited his body. The two join together for a series of concerts that draw gradually bigger crowds. Other forces, however, are intent on pulling them apart.
The first half-hour or so of Inu-oh sets up the premise, although it doesn't do a good enough job of giving the characters depth. They're pretty thin, making the intro feel very drawn-out. Then, once Inu-oh and Tomona form their act, the movie turns into a series of repetitive musical numbers. Each unmemorable rock song tells a story, but the stories aren't particularly interesting. One ends, and another begins. Any sense of plot comes to a screeching halt as these performances take over. A brief, half-hearted resolution comes once the tunes stop.
It's unclear what Yuasa thinks we're supposed to care about. Most rock operas have some semblance of a story they're telling. There are scenes that connect one musical number to the next. Inu-oh lacks that. We watch Tomono play and Inu-oh dance, and that's about it. Connecting with the film on any kind of emotional level is impossible, since there's extremely little about the characters or their situation to latch onto. How does Inu-oh feel about his sudden dancing? How has it changed his previously unhappy life? Questions like these are never addressed, much less answered.
Presumably, the audience is supposed to simply bask in the psychedelic animation. To be fair, Inu-oh is pleasant to look at. Every number has its own specific style, and those styles become bolder each successive time. Yuasa clearly has a gift for envisioning unique sights and creative angles to animate. Certain shots are dazzling to look at because of the color use, the way figures/locations are drawn, or the movement of the animation. On a technical level, it's an impressive film.
That's all there is to it, though. Without a strong story and characters who have more than one dimension, Inu-oh is just an assemblage of gorgeously animated scenes presented for their own sake. It gets tiresome fast. To see a much better Japanese animated movie about musical performance, check out Mamoru Hosada's Belle.
out of four
Inu-oh is rated PG-13 for violence. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.