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Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa focused on an improbable artistic hybrid as the creative basis for his latest anime feature, Inu-Oh, premiering this week in Venice’s Orizzonti section. What would it have been like if a performer of traditional Japanese Noh theater during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) danced to arena rock music instead of the gentle, evocative plucking of the ancient Japanese biwa instrument?
“If you think about it, when rock music first came out, it was something so new and exciting,” Yuasa says. “So if everyday people of the Muromachi era had a chance to hear anything like that kind of music in their time, it would have been an unimaginable surprise — and that was fun for me to think about.”
Based on the Japanese book Heike Monogatari Inu-Oh no Maki by Hideo Furukawa, Yuasa’s adaptation is a musical anime telling a buddy story about two social outcasts: Tomona, a boy blinded by a mysterious curse who joins a Buddhist monastery and takes up playing the biwa, a common life path for the blind in that era; and Inu-Oh, a boy born with extreme physical deformities — one very long arm, one short, and a disfigured face — whose family of traditional Noh dancers covers him in a mask and forces him to live in shame, hiding. One day, he happens to hear Tomona playing a delicate song of tangled fate, and Inu-Oh discovers he possesses a superhuman ability to dance. The duo then pair up, extending their musical experimentations to the point where traditional biwa playing begins to merge with and resemble Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie or stadium rocking Queen (the film’s wildly creative and infectious music is produced by accomplished Japanese multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide).
Today, Noh theater is famous for its slowness and almost impossible subtlety of expression — traits that make it a highly forbidding form of classical Japanese dance-drama for young people or newcomers. But in its origins, back in the Muromachi period and prior, it was very much a people’s art form, featuring acrobats, song, dance and comic sketches. Traditional biwa music, which accompanied Noh and was used to channel and resurrect the dead, was intended to provide the audience with an opportunity to reflect on their ancestors’ lessons and ponder the proper paths of their own lives, Yuasa says. So the director sought to recapture these qualities and combine them with more contemporary music and a relatable coming-of-age story in order to rekindle appreciation for the ancient art forms.
“The playing of the biwa was about posing the question: In what way are you going to live? The way society asks you to, or the way you really want to?” he says. “Rock music is really fundamentally about the same thing. I found that really interesting, and then the whole approach for this film came to me.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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