Visually lavish and narratively tangled, the “Inu-oh” anime is set in 14th-century Japan. The main story yes, at least. It tells the story of two daringly talented young castaways – a blind musician and a cursed dancer – who meet one dark evening. After the usual how-to, they begin to play for each other and quickly slip into enchanted synchronization. Together they frolic, scramble and whirl, and soon they are levitating, spinning against an expanse of twinkling stars as they circle around each other like celestial bodies.
It’s only fitting that these characters meet on a bridge, given that the film crosses past and present, reality and fantasy. It is based on a novel, “The Tale of the Heike: The Inu-oh Chapters”, by Japanese writer Hideo Furukawa who riffs on “The Tale of the Heike”, a seminal medieval epic about clans engaged in war civil. Source of countless interpretations, the original tale reaches its climax with the Battle of Dan-no-Ura, during which the Heike clan is defeated, the child emperor drowned and a sacred imperial sword lost. This sword appears periodically in “Inu-oh” – but good luck figuring out why.
What the sword – which occasionally drips blood – has to do with our two whirling strangers is not entirely clear. Those who have read Furukawa’s novel, which does not appear to have been translated into English, may have no problem following the film’s labyrinthine twists, time shifts, storytelling elisions, and fantastical flourishes. After the first hour or so and having forgotten much of the (confusing!) introductory exhibit, I gave up trying to fit the pieces together. Instead, I settled for following the often spectacular animation, relishing in its watery hues, vivid character designs, and recurring, galvanizing embrace of near-abstraction.
Director Masaaki Yuasa (“Ride Your Wave”) opens “Inu-oh” with a slew of images that announce his visual ambitions and leave you with little time to get your bearings. After a short, snappy sprint through time, the story settles on Tomona (voiced by Mirai Moriyama), a boy who lives in a fishing village with his parents. One day, two royal emissaries charge Tomona’s father to dive in search of a mysterious treasure. It goes terribly wrong; the father is killed and Tomona blinded. He leaves home but soon finds a calling, becomes a biwa (lute) player and ends up meeting the stranger on the bridge.
That would be Inu-oh (Avu-chan, of rock band Queen Bee), and her past adds complications. A born outcast with severe deformities, including an arm longer than his coltish legs—when he runs, he drags him as dangerously as Isadora Duncan’s scarf—Inu-oh hides his face under a gourd mask. He also speaks with an adenoidal moan and thrashes around with a feverish agility that evolves into a kind of superpower after meeting Tomona. Together they hit the road and hone their skills: Inu-oh becomes a performance sensation and Tomona a proto-rocker, with squeaky biwa and admirers.
Given the attention Yuasa gives to these passages, it’s clear he likes the idea of 14th-century performers swinging around like modern arena gods. If nothing else, these interludes have a clarity and directness of storytelling that is otherwise lacking here. (Script is by Akiko Nogi.) Admittedly, it’s fun to watch Tomona jam: he plays his Jimi Hendrix-style biwa behind his head (to be clear, the resemblance is strictly gestural), whips his luxurious mane and uncovers his chest, frothing the crowd. Yet while over time the performances reveal truths about the players and their lives, they quickly become tiresome.
However, sometimes beauty is enough (or almost). And “Inu-oh” is often visually arresting, beginning with an early interlude that, with its color washes, delicate figures, negative space and lateral movements, resembles an animated scroll painting. This sequence, like the rest of the film, retains a strong trace of the human hand and shows a deep apprehension (and pleasure) of the plasticity of the medium, too often absent from contemporary commercial animation. Even though Yuasa’s approach changes from section to section – as he plays with texture, volume and hue and gently shifts the balance between figurative and abstract – his extraordinary touch remains evident. in every line and in every breathtaking swirl.
Rated PG-13 for slight peril and death. In Japanese, with subtitles. Duration: 1h38. In theaters.