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Annecy 2020: An Inside Look at Masaaki Yuasa's Inu-Oh Film

by Reuben Baron,

A 13-minute preview video for Masaaki Yuasa's upcoming film INU-OH is streaming as part of the online Annecy International Animated Film Festival's “Work In Progress” selection, featuring behind-the-scenes insights into the film (Yuasa's last before a temporary retirement) and the first ever look at the film's animation.

Following an opening montage covering most of Yuasa's filmography from Mind Game to this summer's Japan Sinks: 2020, the preview showed a clip from INU-OH. A horse walks against a black backdrop, its footsteps lighting up the ground. It carries a container of rice; we see the grains bouncing around inside the container. A few grains fall on the ground, attracting birds. It's explained this scene is from the perspective of Tomona, a blind biwa priest, the attention shifting to the sounds that interest him.

The animation style is unique and looked more like a moving painting than traditional anime. This style was the product of heavy experimentation with digital filters. Another clip in the presentation showed different ukiyo-e inspired filters being applied to the same few seconds of a man putting on a mask. As producer Eunyoung Choi puts it, “Director Yuasa's animations are never the same.”

INU-OH is a historical biopic of a celebrated 14th century Noh performer, based on a novel by Hideo Furukawa. When discussing the film, Yuasa was particularly excited about the anachronistic aspects of the story: “What if over 600 years ago, there was a pop culture and stars in Japan like the one we have today? I felt a real significance in portraying the lost pop stars that aren't mentioned in history.”

The characters in the film were compared to The Beatles and played a variety of instruments including some which looked a lot like modern guitars. Their outfits were a mix of historically accurate ones and original Taiyo Matsumoto creations. Producer Fumie Takeuchi said “Director Yuasa is able to capture the conventional aspects of history, but he can also integrate the cultural changes that occurred throughout history to create a world that is free of restraints and full of imagination.”

Much of the preview described the historical background of how the Genpei War, Japan's first large-scale civil war which led to the birth of biwa priests who used music to mourn the fallen, could be the origin of Japan being "divided up into Red and White teams." The teams are a reference to Japan's yearly Kōhaku Uta Gassen contest ("Red and White Song Contest") performed on New Year's Eve.

Yuasa also discussed the background of Noh theater. Now considered “an imposing art,” Noh was once faster-paced popular entertainment closer to modern kabuki. The designs for the main character of INU-OH always showed him wearing a mask. He's described as having “unique physical characters” and the victim of a curse he eventually defeats. Yuasa described his personality as “extremely good-natured. He's very positive about himself, which makes him so attractive.”

INU-OH befriends Tomona, “a boy who is bright and joyful despite his horrible environment, and they start performing together.” Yuasa described the theme of the story as “People might not feel rewarded or acknowledged by society even though they're strong and talented… But one's accomplishments will be noticed by someone somewhere. They'll be passed on and remembered.”

Character designs and concept art by Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkonkinkreet, Ping Pong) were showcased throughout the presentation. Yuasa described Taiyo Matsumoto as “very frank.” He offered Yuasa extensive creative freedom in adapting his work for Ping Pong: The Animation. As a character designer, he said Matsumoto “put a lot of thought into each character.”

Yuasa's final message in the presentation shifted focus to the coronavirus pandemic: “The current crisis has changed life for many people. It's become difficult and uncertain. I wish the best to all of you suffering the setback. Having said that, this is a good opportunity to make sure things are better than before. I'm sure many people see this situation as a springboard for more good. I'm looking forward to what such artists are going to do. I think there's much joy in the world even in times like this. Enjoy Annecy 2020 together.”

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