Inu-Oh and the Magic of Gender Expression

There was a musical movement in the 70s and 80s that took great pride in blurring the boundaries of gender expression. It was known as glam rock – and throughout the 80s as glam metal – and artists such as David Bowie, Queen, Kiss and Twisted Sister became known for adopting a flashy and androgynous style for join in their music. This style was seen as an act of rebellion, a way to distance themselves from the revolutionary rock of the 60s by ushering in a sound of decadence and sentimentality and a look that was a performance of gender fluidity.

It’s also something we see in the 2021 animated film. INU-OH. This is no surprise, as the main focus of the movie is how traditions are broken and changed as societies and people progress. The two main characters, Inu-Oh and Tomona, are men on a mission to tell warrior stories outside the approval of the shogunate. They aim to break the curses of those who came before them. In doing so, they adopt a style of music and performance similar to that of 70s and 80s glam. grow hair.

However, there are several ways to read this expression of gender in the film. The first connects to these roots in rock, metal and theatricality. They are traditionally spaces that openly play with appearances and aesthetics, and practitioners typically use them as part of their performances. While some types of music and theater are rooted in genre-typical presentation to appeal to certain markets, rock and metal generally are not. These genres are about rebellion. It’s all about “sticking it to the man”. In a society with very specific ideas of what a man or woman should look like, a fundamental act of rebellion is not to adhere to those expectations but to speak freely. It’s about turning away from tradition and embracing a different future.

This is what Tomona and Inu-Oh do throughout the film. They each start as part of a society that expects something from them. For Tomona, this is the expectation of biwa players, who are supposed to play stories approved by the shogunate. He is told to dress simply and shave his head. For Inu-Oh, it’s the expectation of staying hidden. He’s not supposed to be a Noh dancer; he is not supposed to be seen because of his deformities. He is always seen wearing a mask to keep his face hidden. Each of the boys is asked to hide and respect the rules imposed on them by the others. Part of their freedom from these expectations comes from the appearances they adopt. As they form their own troupe, they begin to dress more flashy and grandiose, using make-up, interesting hairstyles, and clothes of different aesthetics. This view focuses less on gender expression as an extension of gender identity and more as an act of expression and rebellion. Tomona and Inu-Oh present this route as a performance, a tribute to the culture of glam and the spirit of revolution.

The second way to view gender expression in film has to do with gender identity itself. This view is supported by the fact that the person who voices Inu-Oh in the film, Avu-chan, identifies itself as non-binary. Tomona is portrayed throughout the film as a deviant; his former teachers decry his “prostitute” appearance, and those in power look on in disgust as he breaks the boundaries imposed on him. Although people find it off-putting, they still love Tomona’s performance; they just don’t agree with her gender expression. Ultimately, this culminates in violence as the shogunate enforces the law, and Tomona still refuses to fall in line. He won’t stop telling the tales of warriors lost in time, and he won’t revert his appearance to that of a regular biwa player. For some viewers, it’s an example of how society treats gender nonconforming, as Tomona is subjected to brutality for daring to be different by people who won’t even try to understand it. However, it is also an example of how happy some people are when they are finally allowed to experiment with how they look. Tomona seems much happier with her more androgynous look. Her gender expression is deeply connected to her art and her being, and this journey of self-discovery is something many people find relatable.

Gender expression is just another unjust law to rebel against in film. Although Inu-Oh does not break this law, respecting a male presence, Tomona does, and he is punished for his rejection of societal norms. This ending, of course, connects the two interpretations of this film. Whether you see the film as a story of rebellion or a story of gender identity, the same message is central to the use of gender expression in the story. Everyone has the right to discover themselves and to be heard. All Inu-Oh and Tomona want is to tell the stories of the voiceless, and in their performance, they find each other.

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