An animator long showered with awards and critical praise, beginning with his 2004 full-length directorial debut “Mind Game,” Yuasa Masaaki is no stranger to the festival circuit. But Venice, where his new animated feature “Inu-Oh” is screening in the Horizons section, is his first Big Three festival. And his film is the only one from Japan in the lineup.
“I don’t feel that I’m representing Japan or anything like that, but Venice is a festival with a certain status and influence,” he tells Variety in a Zoom interview. “It was the first international festival to invite Kurosawa Akira. And Kitano Takeshi won its biggest prize. So it’s a festival that has recognized the very top people in Japanese cinema.”
The Japanese media has reported that “Inu-Oh,” an animation about how a blind player of the biwa (Japanese lute) and a Noh dancer with a differently formed body created a musical explosion in 14th century Kyoto – will be the 56-year-old Yuasa’s last as a director, but he denies that he is quitting animation permanently. “I’m not retiring, but I am taking a break to study,” he says. “I’ve been working too hard lately, so I couldn’t prepare for my next step. I’m taking time off to do that.”
In the meantime, he is promoting “Inu-oh,” the rare anime to focus on the music and dance – not the wars – of Japan’s Middle Ages. Based on Furukawa Hideo’s novel, which in turn took a real-life, if little-documented, Noh dancer as its subject, the film tells the story of two performers with disabilities who meld their talents to create something revolutionary for its era – dangerously so to the conservative Shogun, who becomes determined to wipe them out of the history books. ”There was something in Furukawa’s novel I thought needed to be seen and read,” says Yuasa. “For me there was a lot of meaning in making a film that shows how these kinds of people existed in the Muromachi Era (1336-1573).”
Not in the novel, however, are the film’s musical scenes, scored by Otomo Yoshihide, that feature long-haired players shredding biwas, accompanied by a light show straight from a 21st century stadium concert. “I wanted to create the feeling of how new their music must have been for that era,” Yuasa says. “But explaining its newness by contrasting it to what was ordinary then would have taken too much time.” Instead he animated rock-concert-like scenes featuring biwa player Tomona (Moriyama Mirai) and Noh dancer Inu-oh (real-life pop singer Avu-chan). “A music like rock would create the feeling of strangeness and surprise people felt then,” he explains.
Also, he wanted to show how the people and events of the past can become forgotten by history. “The role of this film is to reclaim what has been erased,” he says. ”Denying that this kind of music could have existed in the past is strange. I don’t think it’s strange at all that they could have had something like rock. There was a lot of energy in that era. It was something like the energy when rhythm and blues gave way to the Beatles and other rock musicians. People found it surprising, but interesting.”
He is also not concerned that foreign audiences might find the film’s historical references hard to parse. “I only started to understand that era for the first time after I had read and researched a number of books,” he says. “Probably even Japanese would find some of the contents (of the story) strange and really hard to understand. But I just want audiences to feel something for these two young guys who overcome their disabilities, to know that they existed.”
He believes that, with the growing popularity of anime worldwide, the gap that might have once existed between Japanese and foreign tastes have narrowed considerably. “What is accepted in Japan is now also accepted abroad,” he says. “The globalization of anime is really a great thing.”
But problems also exist, he notes, such as the pressure to switch from the 2D style he has long favored to full 3DCG. “In recent years fans in both Japan and abroad have still been able to see 2D animation, but who knows how long that will continue,“ he says. “For me it’s wonderful that it’s still around, but unless we continue to show how great 2D animation can be, it’s going to lose out to 3DCG.“