'Inu-Oh' Director Masaaki Yuasa on Giving Noh Theater a Rock Opera Twist

Masaaki Yuasa is known for doing the unexpected, and his newest film Inu-Oh certainly proves why this works so well for the director.

The anime is an epic rock opera set in 14th century Japan, and it is based on the work of real-life musician Inu-Oh but with a modern twist, complete with dazzling performances and songs you can't help but rock out to.

Inu-Oh follows Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), a young boy who is blinded and finds his calling as a biwa [lute] player, he meets the film's eponymous character (played by Queen Bee rock star Avu-Chan), a singer whose unique physical characteristics, like his extremely long arms and an eye where his mouth should be, made him a pariah.

Tomona and Inu-Oh strike up an instant friendship bolstered by their love for music and talent for making it, and the pair start touring the country giving elaborate performances that wow the public, royals and peasants alike.

Yuasa spoke to Newsweek about what it was like to create the musical, and why it was necessary to give Noh Theater a modern twist.

'Inu-Oh' Director Masaaki Yuasa on Giving Noh Theater a Rock Opera Twist

A still from "Inu-Oh" featuring Inu-Oh and Tomona. Director Masaaki Yuasa spoke to Newsweek about creating the rock opera and giving Noh theater a modern twist. GKIDS Films/Science Saru

"Originally the project was brought on by a producer, but just from the story it really had an influence on me," Yuasa told Newsweek. "To think about how a Noh performer from the olden days [...] was a real star, even popular among the peasants, he was very popular.

"Noh is originally an artform that shows different sides of people who were not shown, or [were] erased from the story, so I really thought that was interesting too.

"And I think the fact that the story was written by Hideo Furukawa [who wrote novel Tales of the Heike: INU-OH] and then to express that in an animation and have that shown to more people in this modern world was very interesting."

The Devilman Crybaby creator added: "Noh, even in Japan, is a really hard artform to get into, you know, even before the project started I hadn't even seen a Noh performance either.

"But, you know, going back to how Inu-Oh was a performer that was loved by everybody, I really thought that would be interesting. And I thought I could bring that same kind of energy to the current world."

Yuasa explained that he went to see Noh theater for the first time thanks to his work on the film, and, although he found it hard to understand, the more he saw the more he enjoyed it.

"It was indeed difficult to understand, it's very hard also, it's just a difficult subject," the director said. "But, I think eventually as I watched more of it I really got into it and I understood what was entertaining about it."

On Creating the Music for 'Inu-Oh'

Yuasa chose to add modern elements to the music of Inu-Oh, making it a veritable rock opera by including guitars in Tomona's performance and having him and Inu-Oh riff and head-bang like any modern rock star would.

The reason why the Lu Over the Wall director chose to do this was so he could convincingly include the crowd in Tomona and Inu-Oh's shows onscreen, because the best music for that kind of reaction is rock.

"I really thought using rock music would be a really good way to get them involved in the performance," Yuasa said of the film's music and its modern feel. "Inu-Oh, as a performer, his name remains in history but none of his music, none of his performances are written in history, so we don't know anything about his music.

"So, I really wanted to, for the viewers now, I really wanted to depict a surprising event, I really thought taking modern music would be a surprise.

"And then in regards to depicting history, if I had gone back to just the history that was written and then just based my story off of that, I really felt like that would just narrow the story of what I could tell.

"So, then I thought, you know, I want to go into something that could have happened and that would be really surprisingly different."

To Pull Off a Rock Opera You Need a Rock Star

Creating the show-stopping performances that Inu-Oh and Tomona make was a "little difficult," though, the director said.

"Every time there's something that's really extreme or something that is so different [onscreen], I do try to instill realism in how I express it, so it was difficult," he said.

To pull it off, Yuasa made sure to hire people who could convincingly put on a show like the elaborate ones that he had planned for his main characters, but it took time to find the right actors.

"Normally we would try to find someone that would fit the character, but, you know, that proved to be a little bit difficult," Yuasa shared. "So, then once we decided to cast Avu-Chan and Mirai Moriyama as the two main leads we made the characters actually fit them, and it actually went more smoothly."

When asked if he felt it was important to include someone like Avu-Chan, who leads their own rock band, Yuasa said: "It was really important, that was something that we had in mind from the very beginning, we wanted them to be able to sing."

Reflecting on his experience of making Inu-Oh and if he'd want to make a musical again, Yuasa admitted: "I think with this film I went in too deep. So, maybe, eventually."

"I think it'll be interesting to do something contemporary, or maybe taking something from the past, like West Side Story, and have a new version of it. That might be interesting," he added.

Whatever Yuasa decides to do next, musical or otherwise, will no doubt continue to bring the director's own unique stamp on the anime industry, and it will likely both surprise and amaze just as much as Inu-Oh will.

Inu-Oh is out in theaters across the U.S. now.

Stills from "Inu-Oh," director Masaaki Yuasa spoke to Newsweek about creating the music for the film and casting rock star Avu Chan and actor Mirai Moriyama as leads Inu-Oh and Tomona.