Rocking Out in History With Inu-Oh Director Masaaki Yuasaby Kalai Chik,
Coming fresh off the Golden Globes, director Masaaki Yuasa greeted a full house of eager fans during a screening of INU-OH. GKIDS only announced the special event at The Landmark Westwood theater in Los Angeles a week earlier, but every seat was filled with either thrilled first-timers or repeat viewers–some seeing the movie for a second or third time. Although the film did not win its Golden Globe category, Yuasa excitedly introduced the movie and its characters with the same energy and fervor as if he were pitching the film from scratch.
His pride and passion for the film shined through his bright expression. He explained the backgrounds and story behind the two main protagonists, one of them is a biwa priest and the other protagonist is a musical star. “This is a tale about Japan 600 years ago and there's a lot of complicated situations and background, so I don't even describe it in the film,” said Yuasa. “Because I didn't explain it, I don't want you to get involved in the historical context. The latter half is a concert for all of you.”
He emphasized how much he wanted viewers to enjoy the content without thinking too hard about “the difficult and complicated history of Japan” that the story is based on. The crowd applauded and cheered for the movie to start, now with higher anticipation for the film screening to commence. In addition to the glam rock concert experienced in the movie, the crowd could look forward to the live performance by the film's biwa supervisor, Yukihiro Gotō.
Once the closing credits came on screen, Yuasa was welcomed back with warm applause and several standing ovations. Having just seen the intense musical concerts in the film, all eyes were on Goto as he prepared his instrument. While he did that, Yuasa shared how he and Goto came to work together. Not only was Goto the film's biwa supervisor, but he was also the voice for Taniichi, Tomona/Tomoichi's big brother and master.
“Goto is Taniichi,” said Yuasa. “I saw a performance of Mr. Goto, and I thought it was really cool, so that's why I asked him to work on this film with me.” Because the music is “not really traditional Japanese music,” as it incorporates rock alongside the biwa sounds, Goto was also involved in the vocal arrangement of the music. Yuasa would rely on his expertise to translate and blend the sounds together alongside the movie's composer, Otomo Yoshihide.
Before starting, Goto took a moment to introduce himself and the piece he was going to perform. “I'm Yukihiro Gotō. Today I'm going to play where Tomona meets Taniichi, called Dan-no-ura.” He would expertly play the battle scene music, and transitioned to the song in the temple where the biwa priests play and chant together. Attendees were given the rare opportunity to hear him play the original composition right after the film screening. It's no mystery why Yuasa was so amazed and awe struck at Goto's skill.
As the biwa stage came to a close, the audience gave a long standing ovation and the staff swiftly transitioned to the Q&A discussion. Moderated by Animation Magazine's Ramin Zahed, Yuasa shed light on the production process and his creative inspirations behind turning Hideo Furukawa's novel from page to screen.
Moderated Q&A Session
Tell us how you came to find this amazing story, and what was it about this book that really captured your imagination and said 'I'm gonna make an animated movie out of this?'
Yuasa: In history, I think there's a lot of stories that are written down about samurai who won and conquered everything that ended up on the top. But I think the people who lost the war, or the commoners, are not written down. This story that INU-OH is based on tells the story of INU-OH whose name remains, but there's no history or records of what this person was like.
Mr. Furukawa, who wrote the novel, created the story imagining what kind of person he was, what the commoners were like, what the commoners' reactions were like to his performances. I really thought it would be interesting to depict people who were not written down or recorded in history.
Of course, whenever we see one of your movies, we know that we're going to see the unexpected and something totally original. In this case too, it was amazing how you took this classic story that's in an important century to Japan, and gave a completely moderate and contemporary approach. Can you tell us a little bit about how you decided to bring modern music to it? Like making it a rock opera?
Yuasa: Even though this is a history piece, it's really about outsiders who try to rise up in society and accomplish something. I thought the rock music would fit into that theme of the story. Also, when we think about the past, we have this narrow sense of view because it's really based on what's written down on record. I think in the past, people had way more imagination, way more than was written down in history. So then I wanted to show that people in the past are not that different from us. They probably had big imaginations and they probably could have done things that we could have done, but I wanted to bring in modern elements to make it a little more interesting.
When you see someone playing a guitar on their back, you think of Jimmy Hendricks. But actually, was someone in the 40s who did that too. Or if you go way back, like 1600 years ago, there's a Chinese mural that has a person playing a biwa behind their back. That made me think, “Ok, maybe someone might hold a biwa and play it like how you would hold and play a guitar on your back.” That's sort of what I incorporated.
Were you influenced by any rock musicals or rock operas? I heard a little of Queen in there, like We Will Rock You. Were you influenced by other things?
Yuasa: There's a lot of different elements like Singing in the Rain, MC Hammer, and various things that I thought everyone knows. Not just in Japan but globally. I felt that people would recognize all the elements that I put in. But, most of what I incorporated are stuff that I like. For this movie, I did the storyboarding first and then put the music in. There's also elements of ballet, athletic movements, gymnastics, and Jackie Chan's kung fu movements incorporated in the choreography.
Of course, we have to talk about the character designer, Taiyo Matsumoto. Can you tell us a little bit about how that was done? The main character was quite striking and unusual. Maybe talk a little bit about that?
Yuasa: Taiyo Matsumoto did the cover art for the original novel, so he knew what the story was about. I had him draw out whatever he wanted at first, and then we changed the character designers depending on what I wanted to incorporate.
Can you talk about the choreography of the scenes? You mentioned that you did the storyboards, can you tell us a little bit more about that process for you?
Yuasa: Originally, I really wanted the songs and the music to be composed first for the movie. But then when I told the composer, Mr. Otomo, about it, he's like, “Wait, this is about the past in Japan? But how could you want an electric guitar? That doesn't make any sense.” I had a hard time conveying what I wanted to do, so that's why I had to do the storyboarding first. I mixed some music that I really like, and made a mood board music type of thing. Then I did the storyboard. I turned in that storyboard as a reference. “This is the kind of thing I wanted: they're going to be dancing to modern music, so it's okay to have a guitar in this historical Japanese anime. But then when I turned in the storyboard, Mr. Otomo turned in music that perfectly fit the storyboard, so we just ended up using that.
That's when Mr. Goto came in, because he understands there were different kinds of biwa in the past too. He understood what I was talking about. He said, “Yeah, it's okay to have this kind of music because in the past there's different kinds of things, so it could have been possible. That really helped Mr. Otomo comprehend what I was trying to do.
Next question is two parts: what was your favorite part of this project and what was the toughest part of it for you?
Yuasa: I think creating anything is fun. But because this was a historical piece, I had to research a lot about an era I didn't know much about. I thought that was really fun because it played into the different eras, and how we evolved into today. I felt like mixing the historical parts and the modern part was also fun too. The tough part was because it's a historical piece, the clothes are different and then there's ways to wear those clothes. Trying to convey that to the staff was really hard. There's a lot of dancing and singing, and there's just so much of it. There's a lot of work for the staff, so that was hard.
Can you tell us about your next project? Are you just resting and keeping it all secret?
Yuasa: I'm working on stuff here and there a little bit. But it's very little, so anything that'll be announced is going to be way later.
You need a lot of rest, a lot of rest and relaxation.
Yuasa: I'll do my best to rest.
Open Audience Questions
First of all, I have to watch 200 or more films a week and this is probably the best film I've seen in the last 10 years, so thank you so much. I'm familiar with Ovid's Metamorphoses and Kafka's The Metamorphosis. If you could talk to me about Japanese philosophy and transformation, and how rock music is used as an anachronism? As a catalyst for transformation for these two main characters?
Yuasa: Rock is the type of music they need to use to express themselves. It's very strong, wild, and sexy. This might not be answering your question, but INU-OH changes every time he sang. By singing about the spirits is a way of purifying the spirits, and the spirits help to heal him. At the end, you might be able to tell that he didn't care if he had changed or not. He didn't really care about his body technically healing. It seems like he's seeking beauty and seeking normalcy, but what's important to him was inside.
My quick question, Avu-chan was amazing as INU-OH. I was wondering what your thoughts are on Avu-chan's delivery and what do you think is the most important addition that her portrayal gave to the film?
Yuasa: I thought everything was very good when I worked with her on Devilman, but I was a little worried about casting her in the main role. But then she put in a lot of effort, she worked really hard. In the performances, when she's singing, she really added a lot of good elements to it. I had INU-OH lean in towards Avu-chan to make the character.
I've noticed something across all of your films. That it carries such a strong visual and audio identity. I was just wondering, although it was definitely a work of both you and your team, what are the inspirations for all of this almost abstract imagery? In this film, it's the direct contrast of the rock music and the historical Japan imagery. What is your main inspiration for your imagery and audio?
Yuasa: I think it comes from my everyday life. When I think something is interesting, I keep thinking about how I can make that interesting thing into a visual. Or if I'm listening to music and I think it's interesting. I'm thinking, “Oh what kind of visual would go with that music?” When I listen to music, I think about how I can make this visually. I think it's something that comes to my everyday life.
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