Inu-Oh: Japanese rock between intersectionality, gender fluid and decoloniality.

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Inu-Oh: Japanese rock between intersectionality, gender fluid and decoloniality.

Written by Antonella D'Autilia

Masaaki Yuasa's anime is a political manifesto dedicated to Generation Z who want to choose their own words to define themselves, starting with gender; a practice we find in ancient Indian, Native American, and Aboriginal cultures.

The history of Japanese animation is studded with politically committed products. From the very first productions of this kind such as Strength, Women, And the Ways of The World, made by Masaoka Kenzo in the 1930s, to the present day. One only must think of the ecocritical and pacifist flair that emerges from many of Hayao Miyazaki’s works or of very recent feature films that touch on socially relevant issues such as Naoko Yamada’s A silence voice or Lonely Castle in the Mirror directed by Keiichi Hara.

Released in Japanese cinemas in 2021, Masaaki Yuasa’s Inu-Oh is a political manifesto focusing on the themes of intersectionality, identity, and social struggle. Irreverent, visionary, and unique, the feature film is set in 14th century Kyoto in the Muromachi period. Here, the story of the Heike, a clan massacred by the Genji clan, fell into oblivion as it was repressed by the victors. They colonised the official historical imagination, imposing a single version of the facts and making any reference to the existence of the Heike disappear from public narratives. Into this frame come the two outsiders whose task it is to bring these forbidden tales to the surface. In doing so, they will both begin a journey of self-determination and rebellion against the established order.

What about the two protagonists? The first Tomona is a monk who plays the biwa (typical short-handled lute). After losing his father following the discovery of a mysterious artefact Heike becomes blind and once grown up seeks the truth about this fate from the shogunate. Inu-Oh is a semi-demonic creature deformed from birth. Scorned by his father and a practitioner of Sarugaku theatre, he is forced to hide his face behind a mask.

One of the most important political messages of the film emerges from the very first meeting of the two characters. As they get to know each other, they seem almost immune to the prejudice, fears and stereotypical labels to which out-of-the-ordinary people are often subjected in societies.

The fact that Tomona, being blind, is in no way conditioned or frightened by Inu-Oh’s deformity is an invitation to individuals of all ages to push their visual angle beyond appearances and what certain diffuse and heteronomous. perspectives want us to see. For his part, Inu-Oh appears to be fascinated by the bonzo’s blindness and rebellious genius, and propelled by the driving rhythm of his music, discovers he has a talent for dancing.

From this moment on, what comes into play is the willingness of the two artists to appear together in a human and artistic partnership that brings them closer precisely by virtue of their status as persons belonging to minorities, leading precarious lives. Theirs can be seen as an alliance of bodies, where bodily acts become a performative fact. Let us see how.

Breaking gender boundaries in ancient Japan

Today, more and more children and adolescents claim to place themselves outside of sexual identities assigned at birth or gender expressions given to them by society. In 2019, the New York Times noted how Generation Z youth preferred to choose their own words with which to describe themselves, rejecting pre-packaged labels.

Those who define themselves as gender fluid give rise to a way of being, of appearing, of feeling, that ranges across a broad spectrum of identity configurations: male, female, neutral and non-binary.

The view that gender fluidity is a typical feature of contemporary life is widespread, but in fact in Indian, Native American and Aboriginal cultures it has existed for centuries.

This way of choosing gender freely in one’s biographical journey can be found in the physical and moral transformation of Tomona and Inu-Oh in mediaeval Japan. In the course of the events, both performers will undergo a bodily, musical, spiritual metamorphosis, which will involve their popular audience and beyond in an ecstatic, rocking delirium.

Inu-Oh will revolutionise both himself and the discipline of Sarugaku, overshadowing other practitioners and his father’s theatre company itself in the eyes of society. Performance after performance, together with Tomona (who will take on the name Tomoari) they will break down all barriers to the free manifestation of transgender and/or gender fluid traits. Both adopt a look that is a hybridisation of traditional Japanese clothing and clothes or accessories in the style known as glam rock, in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s in America and Europe. The two wear their hair long and in many scenes wear flashy make-up. Inu-Oh in his movements and appearance is reminiscent of very famous vocalists such as Bowie, Freddy Mercury, Marc Bolan, Peter Gabriel; he looks, at times, like a character from Velvet Goldmine (1998). It is no coincidence that his voice was dubbed by Avu-chan, famous genderqueer frontman of the Japanese rock band Queen Bee.

Tomoari, with a very androgynous look, traces the style of great icons such as Zeppelin, Kiss, The Who, Iggy Pop. By mixing flamboyant and typically feminine elements with transgressive clothing and offbeat combinations, the biwa player voluntarily feminises masculinity, as so many performers did between the 1950s and 1980s. Among other things, the relationship between the two protagonists hints in a very veiled way at going beyond mere artistic communion.

The viewer has the arduous task of exploring, from an intersectional perspective, how various lines of identity intersect as they emerge in the referential content of the feature film by looking at intertextual references, messages, styles, genre characteristics.

Breaking traditions with art: a decolonising rebellion

In order to fully understand Inu-Oh, one has to get to the heart of the message Yuasa wants to send out: learning about what lies behind the transformations that go through man and the world is the key to getting closer to understanding what freedom is.

In Inu-Oh, the expressive power of music transports man beyond a reality colonised by the hegemonic historical powers.

Through rock opera present, past and future dialogue with each other, placing the diversity of men and the political ideals of an era in a dialectical relationship. Music, politics, the arts and Kyoto itself are transformed by the rebellion in music of our heroes in a surreal fusion of traditionalism, folklore and modernity.

For instance, in Inu-Oh’s performance set to the notes of Burial Mound of Arms, in recounting the fate of the Heike in the battle of Dan-no-ura. Many choreographic elements are reminiscent of  Michael Jackson’s Thriller video clip. This is both in terms of the dance steps, and choreographically at the level of the stage architecture, where arms of the Heike like zombie limbs punctuate the rhythm of the theatrical narrative.

As Inu-Oh goes on with his performances, his body begins to become human, breaking the curse he had fallen victim to due to his father’s lust for power. Why does this happen? It happens because Inu-Oh brings back the repressed stories of the Heike. He returns them to the Japanese people and thus allows the spirits of the clan to reach nirvana. He changes himself and at the same time the world in which he lives.

The same goes for Tomona. He is tasked with narrating the exploits of Inu-Oh, a Japanese aoidos, who recounts the exploits of an epic hero of the Rising Sun. As he transgresses the musical and costume rules approved by the shogunate, he arrives at the truth about the patricide that occurred in his past.

We leave it to our readers to discover the ending, we conclude with the words used on Wired who called Yuasa’s work “the most beautiful animated rock concert (of the 1300s)” and with those of William Bibbiani who, as explained in the official trailer on TheWrap described it as “the best feudal-Japanese-hair-metal-demonic-curse- serial-killer- political-tragedy-rock-opera of the year”.

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Inu-Oh: Japanese rock between intersectionality, gender fluid and decoloniality.

Written by Antonella D'Autilia

Masaaki Yuasa‘s anime is a political manifesto dedicated to Generation Z who want to choose their own words to define themselves, starting with gender; a practice we find in ancient Indian, Native American, and Aboriginal cultures.

The history of Japanese animation has always had a political dimension, with works addressing social and political issues. From early works such as Masaoka Kenzo’s ‘Strength, Women, And the Ways of The World’ in the 1930s to more recent works such as Naoko Yamada’s ‘ A silence voice’ or Keiichi Hara’s ‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’.

Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Inu-Oh’, released in 2021, is a political manifesto focusing on themes such as intersectionality, identity, and social struggle. Set in 14th-century Kyoto during the Muromachi period, the film explores the forgotten history of the Heike, massacred by the Genji, and the repression of their memory by the victors who colonised the official historical imagination.

The protagonists, Tomona and Inu-Oh, are two outsiders tasked with bringing these forbidden stories to light. Tomona, a biwa (a type of lute) playing monk, seeks the truth about his father’s death linked to the Heike, while Inu-Oh, hides his deformed face behind a mask.

The film conveys an important political message from the first meeting between the two characters, highlighting their immunity to prejudice and stereotypical labels. Tomona’s blindness allows him to ignore Inu-Oh’s deformity, inviting viewers to overcome appearances and perspectives imposed by society.

The plot develops as Inu-Oh discovers Inu-Oh’s talent for dance, and the two artists decide to form a human and artistic partnership, uniting their precarious lives and recognising themselves as members of a minority. Their collaboration becomes a kind of alliance of bodies, where bodily acts become performative expressions of their individuality and rebellion. Let us see how.

Breaking gender boundaries in ancient Japan

Today, more and more young people say they do not fully identify with the gender labels assigned at birth or imposed by society. In 2019, the New York Times noted that members of Generation Z prefer to choose their own words to describe themselves instead of accepting predefined categories.

Those who call themselves gender fluid embody a way of being, appearing and feeling that spans a wide range of gender identities: male, female, neutral and non-binary. Contrary to common opinion, gender fluidity is not new, but has been present for centuries in cultures such as Indian, Native American and Aboriginal.

This freedom in the choice of gender identity also emerges in the transformation of Tomona and Inu-Oh in medieval Japan. During the events, both undergo a physical, musical, and spiritual metamorphosis that engages the audience in an ecstatic, rocking experience. Inu-Oh revolutionises himself and the discipline of Sarugaku, defying social conventions and darkening other practitioners and his father’s theatre company.

Inu-Oh and Tomona (now Tomoari) overcome obstacles to the free expression of transgender and/or gender fluid identities. They adopt a look that mixes traditional Japanese clothing with the glam rock style of the 1970s and 1980s in America and Europe, which has its roots in the 1950s. They both sport long hair and flashy make-up, recalling famous artists such as Bowie, Freddy Mercury, and Iggy Pop.

The relationship between the two suggests sentimental undertones as well as artistic collaboration. The viewer is invited to explore how different identities intertwine in the plot, considering intertextual references, messages, and gender styles. The film invites an intersectional exploration of how different identities emerge in the context of the film.

Breaking traditions with art: a decolonising rebellion

In order to fully understand ‘Inu-Oh,’ it is essential to get to the heart of the message Yuasa wants to convey: discovering what lies behind the transformations of man and the world is crucial to fully understanding the concept of freedom.

In the film, the expressive power of music goes beyond man and beyond the reality controlled by the hegemonic historical powers. Through rock, past, present, and future intersect, bringing human diversity and political ideals into dialogue. The protagonists’ musical rebellion transforms music, politics, the arts and even Kyoto into a surreal fusion of tradition, folklore, and modernity.

For example, during Inu-Oh’s performance of ‘Burial Mound of Arms,’ which narrates the fate of the Heike in the battle of Dan-no-ura, one notices choreographic elements reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video clip. The dance and stage architecture, with Heike’s arms moving like zombie limbs, create an engaging theatrical rhythm.

With each performance, Inu-Oh’s body transforms, freeing himself from his father’s curse. This happens because it brings to light the repressed stories of the Heike, returning them to the Japanese people and allowing the spirits of the clan to reach nirvana. Inu-Oh changes himself and the world around him.

The same applies to Tomona, who, in his role as a Japanese aoidos, narrates the exploits of Inu-Oh. By transgressing the musical and behavioural rules of the period, he arrives at the truth about patricide in his past.

We won’t reveal the ending, but we can conclude with the words of Wired, who called Yuasa’s work “the most beautiful animated rock concert of the 1300s,” and those of William Bibbiani, who described it as “the best rock opera with demonic curse, serial killer, feudal Japanese political tragedy of the year.”

☑️ Test your knowledge

Reading Comprehension Quiz. Inu-Oh: Japanese rock between intersectionality, gender fluid and decoloniality.

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In which historical period is Masaaki Yuasa's feature film Inu-Oh set?
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