By Motoko Tamamuro.
All the stories continue: There are sequels and side stories. Why are they born? Stories are told and disappear, read and forgotten. But, if that is all there is, it is ephemeral. That’s why there is a sequel.
The Tale of the Heike: Chapter of Inu-Oh is a modern novel by Hideo Furukawa, set in 14th century Japan. Tomona is in his early teens and a son of family of divers in Dannoura, site of an ancient samurai battle. One day, they have visitors from Kyoto, the imperial capital. With a map in their hand, they ask Tomona to dive and find a relic. He and his father oblige. Coming back up to the surface of the water, his father draws the sword they found, which kills him and deprives the son of his eyesight.
Dannoura is where the powerful Taira clan met their end in the major sea battle against their rival Minamoto clan. In the hundred years since the decisive battle, Tomona’s family has been salvaging relics of the Taira clan and presenting them to people in power. The sword – the sacred treasure Kusanagi – leaps back into the depths of the sea. Tomona decides to travel to Kyoto to find out why his father and himself had to meet such a fate.
During his travels, he meets a minstrel who tells tales of the Taira clan and he becomes his apprentice. In Kyoto, he befriends a monster. Inu-Oh is a cursed child who is so ugly that his family – the Sarugaku theatre performers – did not want to know anything about him. He covers himself from top to toe because people are scared of his appearance. Our blind minstrel is an exception. Thanks to his visual impairment, they can talk heart to heart. For the first time in his life, Inu-Oh has a friend. Inu-Oh’s strong and active view of life inspires Tomona to start telling stories of his friend. The unlikely pair’s payback starts, as they master their chosen arts.
The Tale of the Heike occupies the same space in the Japanese classroom as Shakespeare in Britain. Every Japanese student has to memorise the opening verse at some point during their school life. I can still recite the lines myself after decades. It is strikingly vivid, poetic, and profound, and words flow beautifully, as one might expect from a tale that had its origins in a cycle of tales told by rival schools of Japanese minstrels. The Japanese, however, is so arcane that it often had to be “translated” for modern readers, leading to several updated editions, of which Hideo Furukawa’s in 2016 is one of the most recent.
Having rendered the whole of the Tale of the Heike in modern Japanese, Furukawa returned to the story with a work of his own, an “untold story” that drew on historical accounts, but added a fictional spin – The Tale of the Heike: Chapter of Inu-Oh. Furukawa’s translation of the original story is written in more traditional language than his fictional story. I can picture a middle-aged, kimono-clad monk telling the story at a street corner. It may be a bit clumsy compared to the poetic rhythm of the original, mainly because he has to add explanations for the modern reader, yet it has a melody that grabs you and gently takes you to the world of a bloody conflict.
The historical Inu-Oh (? – 1413), also known as Doami, is now a lesser-known Sarugaku theatre performer, who in his time enjoyed massive popularity. He was highly regarded by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1368-1394), more so than his contemporary Zeami, who along with his father Kan’ami established the original forms of what are now Noh and Kabuki theatre. While Kan’ami’s dance was described as dynamic, Inu-Oh’s style was apparently delicate and elegant. Zeami was said to be influenced by Inu-Oh. However, none of his work has survived and he is shrouded in mystery.
As well as friendship, Furukawa’s novel is a story about fathers and sons. Inu-Oh’s relationship with his father contrasts with that of Tomona, but either way, each father affects and forms his son’s life. Another theme to note is purification. Inu-Oh was born impurity because of a curse. Kegare, or impurity, is a taboo in Shinto, because impurity brings ill health. Although born deformed, he refuses to be beaten. He grabs his fate with both hands by mastering and refining his arts: the ugly becomes beautiful. The message to the modern reader is this: you may find yourself in adversity, but live strongly and positively. The plot is interesting and curiosity about Inu-Oh’s life takes the reader to the end. However, I found myself left frustrated because I could not find the answer to the question: Why did Tomona and his father have to suffer for the Heike’s sacred relic? He is destined to go to Kyoto and become successful, yes, I get that, but where is the answer?
Much of Furukawa’s other work has been involved with the world of popular music. His novel Mirai Mirai , published the year after Inu-Oh, was inspired by hip-hop. One only has to look at the success of Hamilton (or indeed, the anime Samurai Champloo) to see the potential in telling old stories with modern sounds, but Inu-Oh has more of a feel of the benshi about it – those impresarios of early Japanese silent film, who would bring a “silent” film to life by adding the voices, and often, their own spin on the events unfolding onscreen. The story of Inu-Oh is dimly seen through history, but Furukawa becomes the modern showman bringing it to life for us.
This is a medieval Japanese legend reformed for the Twitter generation, more barks and chirps than songs. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, the jaunty rhythm was rather pleasant and it swept me to the end. So, it is all the more interesting that this story is being made into an anime by no other than Masaaki Yuasa. He is unarguably one of the most musically-minded animation directors of our time, with works including Keep Your Hands of Eizoken! (2020) and Lu Over the Wall (2017) to name but a few. Let’s hope the director will give this story of medieval pop stars a voice to sing.
Inu-Oh the novel is currently only available in Japanese. The anime is scheduled to be released in 2021.