Why Inu-Oh deserves the Oscar for Best Production Design

Masaaki Yuasa's animated epic is more than worthy of consideration beyond the narrow restrictions of the 'Best Animated Feature' category.


Kambole Campbell


In a new series, we’re celebrating the films we loved that aren’t likely to dominate the awards race. Over the new few weeks, our writers make passionate arguments for the performances and craft that stood out to them, from blockbusters to arthouse and everything in between.

“Animation is not a fucking genre, animation is film”, so director Guillermo del Toro has repeatedly stressed during the the press tour for his adaptation of Pinocchio with co-director Mark Gustafson. His admirable reinforcement of the multifaceted nature of the art form and insistence that it’s not something trivial or solely a children’s pursuit has been continually boosted by other enthusiasts and animation industry professionals.

But as far as the Academy is concerned it’s business as usual, with no indication they’ll be changing their ways anytime soon. It’s not so much that the wrong films are being honoured – despite a lack of 2D animation this year actually has a decent lineup consisting of del Toro’s Pinocchio, Turning Red, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. There’s some variety despite some puzzling omissions – and a distinct lack of international film – but this year had me wondering more about the ways that animation doesn’t get treated with the same breadth that live action films do.

As Alberto Mielgo said at the 2022 ceremony, “animation is an art that includes every single art that you can imagine”, and it’s rare that animated films get such recognition beyond their cordoned-off segment of the ceremony, a whole umbrella of different artforms flattened into one homogenous category. The most representation any animated features get outside of this is probably in the soundtrack and original song categories, as far as Disney is concerned anyway. So as well as insisting that Inu-Oh, the latest film by Masaaki Yuasa, also obviously should be standing in the Best Animated Feature category, I would also argue that it deserves its place in the technical categories beyond that too.

In an ideal world where all the facets of international animated work got their deserved props, Inu-Oh would also be sitting comfortably in production design. Why not? Avatar: The Way of Water, which is nominated in that category, is a film that’s mostly animated through its motion capture performances and computer generated backgrounds, so it’s not unthinkable.

Before 2012 the award for Best Production Design was originally Best Art Direction, and was expanded to include set designers and decorators – an all-encompassing celebration of the artists who make film interiors. Animation, of course, has production design and art direction too, and Inu-Oh’s is exceptional for its playfulness with visuals that feel both anachronistic and traditional.

The story itself is set around 600 years ago, in a period of new rule after the Heike Clan were destroyed at the Battle of Dan-no-ura. Reminders of the clan are held  only in lost artefacts and the songs of travelling Biwa priests, reciting historical stories through music. The central premise of Inu-Oh is this: what if the Noh performers of this time conducted themselves with the music, looks and attitudes of contemporary rockstars, the moves of ballet dancers and break dancers?

In his presentation of these anachronisms, Yuasa’s continual formal experimentation proves as enthralling as ever. The art direction from Hideki Nakamura incorporates different styles from across time, evoking Japanese paintings from across time in backgrounds that build upon the varied styles of Yuasa’s past work. Even as the film leans into the supernatural, Nobutake Ito’s character designs (originally designed by manga author Taiyō Matsumoto) keep things feeling grounded, accentuating little human flaws.

One thing that stands out is  while Yuasa’s direction often leans into abstraction and expressionism, Inu-Oh also emphasises tactility and realism in certain places to make its placement of modern stagecraft and performance in the past feel believable. This goes right down to the design of the sets and stages on which Tomona and Inu-Oh perform, as the movie shows with great intricacy the technical logistics and the effects work of the concerts, to the point that the mechanics feel utterly real.

I’ve spoken before about these moments as some of my favourites of the film, and how it presents the magic of the duo’s shows –  for example, we see brief flashes of how the stages and props are physically operated, and there’s just enough operational detail shown that for just a moment it feels as though they’re not objects fully within the director’s control.

This is still only just one small, uncanny moving part: an early standout sequence melts away much of the environment and softens its artwork in representation of Tomona’s experience of the world after losing his sight (I would give the same sequence as a case for Inu-Oh also deserving props in the sound categories – songs included). Throughout its relatively short running time, so many different styles of drawing, painting and movement are seamlessly sewn together; it’s a variety of sensory pleasures unrivalled by so many cinematic contemporaries, and it has just as much ambition and visual wizardry as the films chosen for the actual Production Design shortlist.

If Inu-Oh’s nature as a 2D (and sometimes 3D) animated film is a barrier to consideration in this category, then you could also take the production design of Pinocchio (plus Netflix’s other 2022 stop-motion feature, Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild) as a reminder that stop-motion animated films do astonishing work with physical sets, costumes and props themselves. Take also Phil Tippett’s gross-out odyssey Mad God, which along with Pinocchio’s Curt Enderle and Guy Davis has been picked out for Best Production Design at the Annie Awards, awarded by the International Animated Film Association.

The rather controversial choice to create a siloed-off Best Animated Film category was made in 2001, seemingly to avoid nominating Shrek for Best Picture, and ever since then winners have been whatever Disney or Pixar produced film came out that year (Shrek, Spirited Away, Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse being the notable exceptions). Following the 2017 rule change to allow voters outside of the animation profession to vote – as Sam Summers observes in his 2018 piece for Vox – the category’s support for both international and indie animation has dwindled while the gap between this and say, something like the Annies has widened. One wonders if Alê Abreu’s upcoming film Perlimps will receive the same kind of recognition as Boy and the World did. It’s easy to handwave this as yet another sign of the unseriousness of mainstream awards shows, of how out of touch Academy voters are, but as Summers points out, there’s a tangible effect that it has on the exhibition and viewership of certain films, what might get introduced to an audience beyond dedicated enthusiasts.

Perhaps recognition in technical categories outside of the animation industry’s own awards ceremonies would do the same on a macro level, reinforcing the idea of all of the different arts and practices that go into animation. Barring some rather thorough rule changes as well as changes in perception of animated mediums, it won’t happen because of the way that Academy voters are – they seem difficult to convince to watch any animation that isn’t Disney-produced, let alone anything international. Maybe this could be fixed if more animation industry voters were picked up, but I can’t pretend to know about such insider technicalities.

It’s not as though the effort put into animated films goes totally unrecognised – the Annies and other animation industry awards shows exist to recognise these creatives, and break down category awards for animated film to this extent (though naturally, high profile domestic features pick up the most nominations over international or underground productions). The Oscars are far from the only awards stage that matters. But it’s nice to imagine a state where the technical prowess of animated films are treated with respect on an equal level to the live-action films which the Academy Awards supposedly champion – a reminder that there’s more they can (and should!) be given credit for.

Published 2 Feb 2023

Tags: Inu-Oh Masaaki Yuasa

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