By Andrew Osmond.
Inuyasha is an adventure; it’s both an action show and a romcom, and it’s one of the most successful anime to cross male and female demographics. It’s also a monster show, bursting with slimy beasties and dark sorcerers, though its main characters are a heroically unflappable schoolgirl and a peppery boy with furry ears. It’s also a time-travel story, taking a girl from the present into a fantastical version of Japan’s Sengoku (“warring states”) period.
It’s based on an epic manga by one of the most famous manga artists, Rumiko Takahsahi. However, the anime version’s key creators had worked on a very different serial, Gundam Wing. And like Wing, Inuyasha would go on to be a vital gateway title for Western anime fans.
The story starts with what looks like the end of a tragic epic. In the Sengoku period, a great Shinto priestess defeats a demon youth, pinning him to a tree with an arrow. She dies just afterward. Then we skip forward centuries, to present-day Tokyo. Here we meet Kagome, a 15-year-old girl who considers herself entirely ordinary, even if she does live at her centuries-old family shrine. Her grandpa is always trying to give her a sense of the shrine’s long heritage, which she frankly finds a pain. “I’ve been told these stories countless times.”
It’s time for this girl to tumble into Wonderland, though it won’t be a rabbit that leads her. Kagome is beside the shrine’s “Hidden Well,” an especially sacred artefact, when a monster snatches her into the well’s depths. It has the head of a woman and the body of a giant centipede. However, Kagome can break away from the monster; it’s our first clue that she’s not just an ordinary girl. She finds herself at the bottom of the well, but when she climbs out, she’s amazed to find herself in countryside, with no sign of the shrine, or Tokyo for that matter.
She’s emerged in Sengoku-era Japan, fifty years after the battle that we saw in the prologue. Kagome finds a famine-stricken village and suspicious locals (“Topknots, topknots, all of them have topknots!”). Their leader is an old but tough Shinto priestess, Kaede, who’s amazed to see Kagome’s face. The girl looks just like Kaede’s long-dead sister, Kikyo, who was the priestess in the first scene.
The meeting is interrupted by the appearance of the centipede monster, still chasing Kagome. She runs frantically into the surrounding woods to lead it away (this is certainly no average girl). There Kagome finds the white-haired youth, still pinned to the tree by Kikyo’s arrow. He’s not aged at all, and now he’s been woken by Kagome’s scent; he thinks she is Kikyo, his nemesis. Kagome, meet the demon boy Inuyasha!
In short order, the boy is free and superpowered, springing through trees and shredding things with his claws. The centipede monster doesn’t last long. Then Inuyasha chases Kagome himself, but Kaede helps the girl subdue him.
How does she subdue him? Well, you may have noticed that Inuyasha’s name includes the Japanese word for “dog” (“inu”) and Inuyasha is part dog – his adorable fluffy ears are a giveaway. And when you’re a dog, there’s a dreadful human word of power that can’t be ignored. It’s “Osuwari!” in Japanese, but you can guess what it is in English.
That’s how things start, with Kagome and Inuyasha at loggerheads, while other monsters take a worrying interest in Kagome – because, it turns out, of a jewel which emerges from her chest. The jewel is soon smashed into countless shards, flying far and wide. That, it turns out, makes things worse, as just one shard can boost the power of any demon. As a handy plot device for a long-running series, it’s like the beginning of CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura, with all those Clow Cards jetting off in umpteen directions.
So begin the adventures of Kagome and Inuyasha, though there’s a lot more backstory to come, especially about that long-ago fight between the boy and Kikyo. Many more characters will come on board, like Shippo, a mischievous little-boy fox demon; Miroku, a suave but lecherous “monk”; and Sango, a girl warrior with a killer boomerang, a tragic past and a shapechanging animal friend. Their foes will be many, but one stands over them all; the terrible, demonic Naraku, whose story is tied up with the other characters in complex ways.
As noted above, Inuyasha was created in manga form by Rumiko Takahashi, one of the most successful manga artists ever. She was already an institution – and an industry – by the time she began the strip in 1996. Her first hit had been Urusei Yatsura, which began as a manga in 1978 and was adapted as a TV anime in 1981. That’s the one with Lum, the flying girl with ogre horns and a tiger-striped bikini. But many Western fans first met Takahashi through her later series Ranma ½ (from 1987 in manga, and 1989 in anime). That’s the martial arts show with the boy who turns into a girl when he gets wet, his dad who becomes a panda when he gets wet, and so on.
Both series are broad comedies, but there was always much more to Takahashi. Her Maison Ikkoku was a non-fantasy comedy drama, about the awkward relationship between a struggling would-be student and the beautiful widowed woman who manages his boarding house. In a feat of creative juggling, Takahashi wrote it at the same time as the farcical Urusei Yatsura. But for many Takahashi fans, her numerous short strips are just as important, and two plant seeds for Inuyasha.
One was her 1983 strip Fire Tripper, which similarly starts with a girl being whisked from present-day Japan into samurai times. It was animated on video in 1985. Takahashi also wrote a series called Mermaid Saga, a dark take on Japanese legend, about humans who seek immortality by eating the flesh of mermaids. It was animated, both in video form (the videos are Mermaid’s Forest and Mermaid’s Scar) and then for television.
Certainly, Inuyasha draws on Japanese mythology, as Takahashi acknowledged. For instance, you can find old Japanese scroll pictures of snakes with women’s heads, akin to the centipede monster in the first part. But Takahashi said she just made many of the creatures in Inuyasha up. It’s not surprising; Miyazaki said much the same about his fantasy bestiary in Spirited Away.
Actually, one of the beings in Inuyasha’s early episodes is a Noh-mask monster, making an interesting comparison with No-face in Spirited Away. There’s also a malicious little-girl ghost, like the one in the 2002 Japanese film Dark Water, and – especially memorable – an evil frog gulping down the tadpole-shaped souls of young women.
These creations feel Japanese, but international too. Reviewing Inuyasha in an SFX special, I wrote: “We especially recommend it to anyone who likes the really weird, scary monsters that crop up in old folktales and Grimm stories. Inu-Yasha hasn’t anything as scary as the eyes-in-the-hand Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, but some of its colourful cast feel like part of the same creepshow crew.”
Interviewed by Animerica magazine in 2001, Takahashi suggested it was the supernatural subject matter that led her to set much of Inuyasha’s action in the Sengoku era. “It is relatively easier to extract a ghost story from that time period. I didn’t think that deeply about it. It’s just that in the Sengoku era, there was war, and lots of people died. For a ghost to appear and kill a lot of people in the present day – although I guess there are some manga like that – but for one of my manga, I thought if I set it in the Sengoku era, it could be portrayed more softly. The cruelty becomes softer, I think.”
Takahashi also specified she didn’t see Inuyasha as a comedy, and yet the show’s humour is part of its heart. Inuyasha’s broadcast overlapped with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another series that found humour in a teenage girl fighting monsters. There’s a lovely moment early on where a demon – a woman puppeteer controlling a vast web of hair – criticises Kagome’s own hair. Her reaction is exactly what you’d expect from a self-respecting girl.
In a talk at Angouleme in 2019, Takahashi mentioned that her inspirations for Inuyasha included GeGeGe no Kitaro, the beloved ghosts and goblins manga by Shigeru Mizuki, often adapted in anime through the decades. She also cited Dororo, a 1960s manga by Osamu Tezuka. This is another dark saga in a feudal Japan; a deformed hero fights the monsters which have stolen the different parts of his body. Dororo was animated in 1969, though you’re likelier to know the 2019 remake by MAPPA and Tezuka Productions.
However, Takahashi said she was probably more influenced by The Hakkenden, an epic serial novel by Kyokutei Bakin, a samurai. It’s a complex story, but notably one part of Hakkenden deals with a forbidden union between a princess and her faithful dog. The 2012 film Fuse: Memoirs of the Hunter Girl is an elaborate reworking and commentary on the novel.
The Inuyasha anime began in 2000 and was made by Sunrise, home to the mecha franchise Gundam. As mentioned earlier, several key creators previously worked on the series Gundam Wing. The first 44 episodes of Inuyasha were directed by Masashi Ikeda, who’d been one of Gundam Wing’s main directors (the other was Shinji Takamatsu). From part 45 onwards, Inuyasha was directed by Yasunao Aoki, who’d directed thirteen parts of Gundam Wing, then moved up to direct the video sequel, Endless Waltz.
Additionally, the lead writer on the anime adaptation of Inuyasha was Katsuyuki Sumisawa; he’d been the lead writer on Gundam Wing, as well as writing 72 episodes of Dragon Ball Z. In addition, Sumisawa wrote the four “original” Inuyasha spinoff cinema films, subtitled Affections Touching Across Time, The Castle Beyond the Looking Glass, Swords of an Honourable Ruler and Fire on the Mystic Island.
Kagome and Inuyasha were both voiced in Japanese by actors linked with a multitude of franchises. Kagome was voiced by Satsuki Yukino, who you may know as Chidori in Fullmetal Panic, Tae in Gintama and the cat-transforming Yoruichi in Bleach. She’s also Milly in Trigun and Ai in Planetes.
Inuyasha was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi, who was L in Death Note, Usopp in One Piece and Tombo in Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. He also voices the boy sleuth Conan (or Kudo), in the seemingly neverending franchise Detective Conan (aka Case Closed).
Yamaguchi had already played a Takahashi hero, voicing the male version ofRanma in Ranma ½. In 2015, Yukino and Yamaguchi took supporting roles in another Takahashi adaptation, Rin-ne. Yukino voiced Tamako, Rinne’s grandmother, while Yamaguchi voiced Sabato, who’s Rinne’s father and Tamako’s son.
However, many Western viewers in the 2000s would encounter Inuyasha in English-dubbed form, on television. In America, the series was a fixture on Adult Swim, the late-night programming block on Cartoon Network, through the 2000s and into the 2010s. Today, Inuyasha is credited with being a gateway for Western fans, as Gundam Wing had been before it. Incidentally, before Adult Swim was established, Jason DeMarco had tried to bring Ranma ½ onto his Toonami block on Cartoon Network, which was then screening in the afternoons. However, he was stopped by the amount of nudity in the sex-changing serial.
Inuyasha was also shown on YTV in Canada. However, it doesn’t appear to have come to British TV at that time. The only Takahashi anime that got onto British channels was the notorious “parody” dub of Urusei Yatsura, shown on BBC Choice in 2000. Those were different times…
In Japan, the Inuyasha anime halted in 2004 after 167 episodes and four spinoff feature films. Takahashi ended the Inuyasha manga in 2008. A year later, Sunrise broadcast Inuyasha: The Final Act, counted as a separate series but also a direct continuation of the previous anime, rounding off the story in 26 more episodes. In 2020, Sunrise began a sequel series, not based on Takahashi’s strips, called Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Inuyasha is released in the UK by Anime Limited.