Anime maverick Masaaki Yuasa’s 14th-century rock opera gets off to the most traditional start possible with some stark Noh-style declaiming. But things quickly get pretty wild: Hendrix-ish behind-the-head lute shredding, phantom samurai breakdancing, giant whale lightshows. Retrofitting medieval Noh as a world of guitar gods and cavorting dancers, Inu-oh has its two disabled lead characters make a psychedelic plea in favour of slipping loose from dominant narratives, told in a fecund patchwork of styles by Yuasa that asserts its own outsider credentials.
Tomona (Mirai Moriyama) and Inu-oh (trans musician Avu-chan) are the Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of Muromachi-era Kyoto. The first is a biwa player who, in the film’s opening section, is blinded by a mystical sword lost in a battle between two clans wrestling over the shogunate two centuries earlier. The second is the disfigured son of a Noh troupe leader, who hides his face behind a gourd mask and capers around with the help of a giant arm like a cherry-picker crane. But together, they are dynamite: Tomona ripping staid Noh music apart with stadium-rock aplomb, Inu-oh entrancing the entire city with whirlwind dance that repairs his body each time he performs.
For their material, the pair draw on stories of the defeated Heike clan, but the shogun wants to ensure, with the help of the Noh guilds, that this proscribed history dies out. Feeding off the spirits they see around them as floating orange amoebas, Tomona and Inu-oh refuse to let authority interfere with self-expression. Yuasa is similarly cavalier, unleashing a torrent of techniques, including folksy figure work, prettified abstract river battles and stunning blurred blind sequences. But this threatens to overpower storytelling that is sometimes ungainly; the film sags in the nearly 20-minute mid-section which is given over to the first batch of songs (scored by experimental musician Otomo Yoshihide), strangely the one place where Yuasa’s visuals limp.
He more than compensates with two showstoppers: Tomona and Inu-oh’s climactic performance for the shogun, which braids the various animation techniques as it delves into the past to reveal the truth about the curses afflicting them; and a final serene coda that slides across time. An affirmation of lost histories and outcast perspectives that screams with a protean power.