As You-Oh rocks theaters, I keep thinking about Tomona Dan-No-Ura, whose narrative ostensibly begins and ends the film. As he passes through all the stages of his life, becoming Tomoichi when he joins the Biwa priests and then Tomoari when he begins his own musical theater sect, his art becomes intimately tied to his gender presentation. As he flouts expectations he experiments with both his music and his sartorial choices, he turns gender into a performance, and dares people to tell him he’s wrong for it.
There’s something satisfying, (gender-wise, speaking as someone who has three gender crises a week) about watching Tomona vacillate between fey performer and absurdist icon. He channels Iggy Pop in his prime, all lean lines and angles, long hair and a dangerously low waistline, a punk-rock novice who doesn’t know where to fit in, but who inspires plenty of others to try it out. He’s rough around the edges, someone who’s experimenting with his sound, with gender, with perception. And more than that, he makes people notice him for it.
I won’t pretend to be an expert in Noh theater conventions or traditional gender presentations of the period You-Oh places itself in. I understand that Noh was not limited to men, but men often took on women’s roles, and that makeup was used by both men and women of status. What I will say is that You-Oh, as a film, treats Tomona’s desire to express herself with trappings of both genders as divisive and transgressive. He wears his hair long, he dresses loosely, he appears as a “prostitute,” according to his former teachers. His expression of gender becomes tied, very clearly, to cultural deviance.
In our brief interview (coming soon to io9), director Maasaki Yuasa cited Iggy Pop, Jimmi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and the Japanese artist Tamio Okuda as inspirations for the musical performances. Within Tomona’s art, I also saw David Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux, and Freddie Mercury, idols who pushed gender presentation to extremes, who straddled the lines between good and bad taste, who weaponized expectations of their gender within their art. Tomona seems to fit in with these artists who want you to notice their gender by noticing the absences around their art, the spaces where they can break into and possess all forms of themselves without sacrificing what makes them special.
When asked about the themes of transgression in the film, Yuasa said that “this narrative came naturally, as we follow these two performers who are not restricted by the boundaries of society.” What is gender expression but a boundary imposed by society? While Tomona specifically attempts to redraw those boundaries, Inu-Oh begins to embody the ideal masculine more and more, stripping his clothes off and become a graceful Noh performer, transforming into an oddly handsome, Mick Jagger-esque character of grandeur and sex appeal. Even as Tomona uses gender as a weapon of dissonance, it’s unclear whether Inu-Oh knows or cares much for it; he’s simply getting used to being human, and for him, boundaries are easier to see and understand.
Tomona crafts his presentation just as much as his music, and the kind of myth-making that happens in between performances only heightens his ability to be mercurial. His stories, how he looks, the kind of music he makes, the people who listen to him, all of it is a threat. While at the end of Inu-Oh Tomona is punished for pushing the boundaries and refusing to play by the rules, his defiance in the face of death proves that there are no laws without the implication of violence. Art isn’t constrained to what one authority determines it to be, and Tomona, at the time of his death, proves that it’s only violence that keeps people from being free.
Tomona’s gender is an art form, and at the end of the film, when his ability to perform is taken away—when authorities in power decide that he’s too loud, too different—his gender presentation is stripped from him as well. He dies without makeup, without his hair done, without any sort of decorative clothing. And Inu-Oh? He survives because he’s willing to play by the rules, to operate in the form and function expected of him.
But Tomona is a true believer. His art and his gender are so intertwined that he would rather die than live a lie, and he’s killed for his refusal to conform his art or his gender presentation to make others comfortable. It’s tragic, yes, but even fictional martyrdom is powerful. Tomona reminds me that gender is an art form, and there are some people who will always consider art to be dangerous.
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